Thanks to Ellis Preserve, Newtown Square is Making a Comeback
The 318-acre mixed-use property—home to residential, retail, hotel, and office space—is breathing new life into the township.
Equus Capital Partners’ Steve Spaeder in front of the new 251-unit Madison Apartments. Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
Magnificent columns line the façade of Ellis Ballroom, providing a stirring invitation to anyone attending a wedding or special event on the tree-covered, 13-acre campus. Inside, a vaulted ceiling with crystal chandeliers creates an aura of opulence, making it hard to believe that fewer than 50 years ago, the building was a place for students and administrators. The nearby stone cottages that now contain businesses were once the classrooms and dormitories of the Ellis School for Fatherless Girls.
It’s a great backstory for one of the area’s more fascinating experiments, which is happening now in Newtown Square. Of Ellis Preserve’s 318 acres, 100 belong to SAP. The rest comprises a mixed-use menagerie of residential, retail, recreational, hotel and office space set in a modern, walkable setting that gives employers an edge when it comes to hiring quality talent. “This is the next wave of development,” says Steve Spaeder, senior vice president for Equus Capital Partners, which is developing the campus. “It’s interesting that the kids who moved into the city will eventually want to return to the suburbs. How do we satisfy them with a Main Line address in a good neighborhood and good housing?”
At the same time, Ellis Preserve offers 35 companies—with more on the way—a location that helps them attract execs who want to live and work in an affluent area. Yet it’s still convenient enough for others to get there without significant hardship.
The concept was born in 2004, when Equus closed on 218 acres with a million square feet of office space that had fallen into disrepair as it became less and less occupied. Over the ensuing decade-plus, Spaeder oversaw a thorough rehab of the property and brought together a collection of partners that has transformed the one-time school and subsequent ARCO Chemical campus.
The 251-unit Madison Apartments complex offers one-, two- and a few three-bedroom models, along with a pool, a common outdoor area, and an indoor gathering space with a kitchen. The 66 Madison townhomes just opened this past month, and Toll Brothers is in the process of creating its Enclave, which will feature 76 semi-attached homes with high-end features.
Ellis Fitness Center targets people who live and work on campus or nearby. Just across Winding Way, in the retail portion of Ellis Preserve, there’s a Hilton Garden Inn, and a Whole Foods is opening soon. There’s also a credit union, Firepoint Grill, and several other dining and shopping options.
Next to Equus’ snazzy new headquarters, among its corporate neighbors, is an early childhood education center. Paths and sidewalks snake through the property, and even Main Line Health has established an outpost there. More of a secret is Founders Hall Café, housed inconspicuously in one of the corporate units and run by specialty food titan Luigi & Giovanni.
Chris Malone, for one, believes Ellis Preserve is a perfect spot for Fidelum Partners. “It’s an idyllic setting outside the city, without being too far from it and without being in the heart of the Main Line,” says the firm’s managing partner.
A self-described “city girl,” New York native Amy Kothari was a bit skeptical about moving the home security business she runs to Newtown Square. My Alarm Center’s previous homes were in Woodlyn and Media, so Ellis Preserve wasn’t exactly a geographic leap. And she admits that the Main Street vibe seemed a bit “fake” at first.
But Kothari has since come around. The preserve’s amenities, convenience and atmosphere are all conducive to efficiency. Looking out the windows of her office, she sees employees holding “walking meetings,” and the Hilton allows her subcontractors and remote employees to stay on site when they come for meetings. “You have everything you need,” says Kothari. “If we were in the city, we’d have to go out to eat or find a bar to have a drink after work. Here, they’re right around the corner. I think I’ve bought in.”
When Charles Ellis started his school in 1918, he was more interested in helping girls without parents navigate educational and emotional challenges—much like Stephen Girard had done a century earlier for boys in Philadelphia. Ellis’ students seemed quite happy with his largesse, if you believe the first line of the school song: “Ellis, to thee a grateful song we raise.”
By the late 1970s, however, the school was no longer performing its noble service (although the Ellis Trust continues to provide scholarships for orphaned girls). The grounds were sold to ARCO, which used the facility for research and development until the 1990s, when its star began to fade. SAP arrived in ’97 to purchase 150 acres, and ARCO became Lyondell, a chemical company specializing in energy. That, too, waned, and SAP bought the rest of the land in 2001.
It took two years for SAP to come to the conclusion that 318 acres was too much to handle. After purchasing all but 100, Equus rehabbed the school and stripped most of the other buildings down to their frames to create facilities worthy of 21st-century corporate attention. As Ellis Preserve continues to grow, its original charm can be found in artwork and structural nods to the past, while its features are decidedly modern. “The campus brings together work, play and home,” says Malone. “As a 15-year resident, it’s nice to see it all coming together so well.”
Meanwhile, in Drexel Hill
It’s hard to have grandiose town-center dreams when you’re dealing with 17 acres in one of Delaware County’s most congested areas. But Drexeline Shopping Center’s ownership believes it’s a workable concept, limitations aside.
Instead of the open spaces and planned-community concepts that characterize Ellis Preserve, the town center in King of Prussia or the Granite Run Mall’s rehabbed design, the Drexeline’s new look will include a mega Wawa, a ShopRite, self-storage, a Crozer-Keystone medical center, and retail and dining options like Drexeline staple Anthony’s Restaurant. The layout will be leviathan in scope, with a giant conglomeration of buildings surrounded by parking that will rise above the State Road/Township Line intersection.
MCB Real Estate knows what it wants to do, but the project still has to clear some major hurdles—public hearings, code reviews, variance approvals—before construction can begin. It’s hard to argue renovations are necessary, but there are those who worry that the finished product will be less user-friendly and more of a bloated addition to the landscape. Time will tell.