Keyword Site Search

The Rebirth of Keswick Center

By Peter Fernandez,
Carter van Dyke Associates

At the heart of the Keswick project is a traffic circle that directs and slows vehicles. At the center of the roundabout is a circular brick planter; brick also borders the traffic circle. A central clock tower, bollards and ornamental plantings set the scene.

Keswick is a commercial center located in Abington Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. It was one of the first suburban communities developed on the outskirts of Philadelphia at a time when the primary mode of transportation was public transit rail and trolley.

Surrounding the center are once proud neighborhoods with a mixture of large, gracious single-family detached homes and large twin and garden apartments. All these homes were designed on small lots that afforded easy walking to the Keswick Center and the nearby rail station in Glenside. Next to the center is a handsome stone middle school built in the early years of the past century. Still an active school, it is vibrant with activity, but its future remains in question, as a new high school has just been completed.

The Keswick area was built with rich detail. The structures in the center were built in a brick and stucco style, with exposed timber reminiscent of the Tudor style of architecture. This provides a unifying factor bringing a unique identity to the community. The surrounding homes were constructed in a rich variety of architectural styles with exquisite details.

With these wonderful houses, accessibility, and handsome commercial buildings, it is surprising the area could slide into decline. Yet, when the landscape architecture and planning firm of Carter van Dyke Associates was invited to undertake a revitalization project of this area, many commercial buildings were in need of repair and/or standing vacant, and surrounding neighborhoods were declining in value.

The site plan outlines public streetscape improvements that involved parking improvements, traffic islands, new pedestrian crossings, village flags, bollards and a cohesive street tree program.

There are many reasons why this happened. First tiered communities, such as Abington Township, while once beautiful and proud, can often suffer from the long-term disinvestments of public infrastructure, changing social patterns, and the competition of newer more modern development in the outlying rural fringe.

Recognizing the need for the revitalization of Keswick Center, the community established an economic development task force composed of key stakeholders and businessmen in the community. This became the steering committee that helped direct a multidisciplinary team composed of economic planners, landscape architects, transportation planners and architects to initiate the public and private partnerships that were necessary to make the project a success.

Upon completion of a market study it was apparent that the economic demographics demonstrated a great deal of buying power in the community that was not spent within the Keswick Center. Secondly, it was shown that there was a great need for restaurants, coffee shops, and antique shops that would support the existing large theater.

To help induce new businesses that would support the new theme of the community the project team made recommendations for the enhancement of the area that included traffic and parking improvements, streetscape enhancements, and architectural facade improvements.

A major element of the plan was to establish a roundabout in the center of Keswick. Similar to roundabouts found in England, this new traffic-calming device became a major focal point of the commercial center. The unique pavement pattern around the perimeter created a sense of place and provided a needed means of pedestrian circulation linking a large confluence of three streets. On-street parking was encouraged and shared off-street parking was developed. These strategies created additional parking to serve the center and make rental space more valuable.

Tying the architectural characteristics of downtown buildings into the design of the streetscape, such as the red brick used on the sidewalk, provided a unifying factor and brings a unique identity to the community.

An additional strategy to create value was to use grant money to fund streetscape enhancements. With new street trees, sidewalks, pavement, and period streetlights, Keswick Center took on a new image that was reminiscent of how it must have looked in its former days of glory.

The streetlights chosen were designed to emulate the Tudor theme that is representative of the area architecture. For budget purposes the installation of the streetlights was undertaken without having to remove and replace all of the sidewalks. Instead, a two-foot wide strip of concrete was removed just inside the curb. Electrical conduit was placed within this two-foot wide strip to service all of the light fixtures. Then, because it would not have been possible to install new replacement concrete to match the existing concrete, the two-foot wide strip was filled with colorful modular pavers. This helped to define the edge of the street. Within this zone all of the parking meter and sign poles were painted black to match the color of the new light fixtures.

While there were already some street trees within the project area, many were in poor condition or inappropriate due to their poor shape. For example, there were a number of kwanzan cherries that were very low and dense, which made it impossible for patrons to see storefronts or store signs. Honey locust trees were chosen for their tall canopy. An additional benefit of honey locust trees is their small foliage, which is less likely to block visibility and makes it very easy to keep the street clean. Honey locusts do require some maintenance however; at least once a year they must be sprayed to prevent an infestation of insects.

The Tudor style architecture of Keswick is highlighted by the addition of vintage light posts, banners and the numerous trees and planters installed throughout downtown.

To create a focal point, the roundabout was located at the confluence of three streets. Bollards and a clock tower were located within the roundabout, which was detailed with cobble Keswick: curbing and a ring of modular paving in the pavement. To define the vehicular entrances of the roundabout area to the circular pedestrian walkway, colorful modular pavers were added. Raised medians were created to help direct traffic. These were planted with shore junipers, which are salt tolerant, and annuals for seasonal color.

Special studies were undertaken for all of the storefronts, incorporating maintenance and design recommendations that would restore the buildings to their original condition. Architectural suggestions included new windows and doors where appropriate, removal of aluminum siding, new trim, new signs, awnings and new paint color. The objective was to remove inappropriate renovations that were undertaken in the past. The intent was to show how with proper renovation the existing building could be brought back to its former architectural glory. These studies were presented in a report which included an estimate of the cost of the improvements. Individual building owners could then take the design and apply for matching grants up to $5,000. Often, for less than $10,000 a storeowner could have a whole new look with a new sign.

The Keswick Village banners attached to the distinctive black light posts add visual identity and character to the street environment. Despite being close to Philadelphia, the village, located in Abington Township, has retained its small town charm. The project has become a source of pride among the 56,000 township residents.

The payoff was immediate. The vacant stores were occupied with the recommended mix of new commercial establishments at new increased rents. The Keswick Theater, which had always been struggling, had the good fortune to become a regional destination and a great success. As a result, landlords were approached to make the necessary improvements to the facades of the commercial buildings, which was the last piece of the puzzle.

The combination of efforts resulted in the creation of a vibrant community. It is now a regional destination with a revitalized economy. Based upon the strategies developed and the efforts made by many, these results were anticipated. But what was not anticipated was the impact the revamped Keswick Center would have upon the surrounding residential neighborhoods. Families that had moved out of the Keswick area returned to see the changes and elected to move back, knowing that the beautiful housing stock was undervalued. Suddenly, housing prices increased over 15 percent per year and realtors had waiting lists for families who wanted to move back into the community. The result has been increased property values for both commercial and residential properties. The investments made by the township has increased assessments, which will pay off the investments many times over and, most importantly, allow investment in similar projects.

Related Stories

December 6, 2019, 12:36 pm PDT

Website problems, report a bug.
Copyright © 2019 Landscape Communications Inc.
Privacy Policy