The Real Reason Behind the Push for KOP Rail - PhillyMag

The push to build a new Norristown High-Speed Line spur to serve King of Prussia continues to gather momentum, though its critics aren’t going away either.

SEPTA’s release earlier this month of the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for the proposed line has energized both sides in the debate over the spur’s merits. Spur proponents have formed a coalition to support the rail line project, and SEPTA made some changes to the route that was ultimately selected to keep it from literally running through people’s backyards. But those tweaks have not been enough to mollify critics of the line.

That’s because this project isn’t really about reducing traffic congestion in King of Prussia, though proponents say it will keep it from getting worse.

“Retrofitting urbanity” onto KOP

What it’s about is taking some of the edge off of an edge city and putting a little more city in. “Retrofitting urbanity,” if you will.

“I think that’s a great way to phrase it,” said Brandywine Realty Trust President and CEO Jerry Sweeney, the chair of the newly formed King of Prussia Rail Coalition. “A number of these town centers around the country are reinventing themselves.”

The opponents recognize this too, and that fact puts them, well, on edge. Here’s what King of Prussia resident Dan Cowhey told Jim Saksa of WHYY’s Plan Philly:

“A lot of people are concerned with too much change in King of Prussia in general. I know the term ‘edge city’ is being thrown around [but] a lot of King of Prussia residents [don’t want] to become a city. They want to keep that little bit of small-town feel that’s left in King of Prussia.”

No longer a small town

Unfortunately for Cowhey, that train has long since left the station. What was still a semi-rural crossroads when Kravco Realty decided to build a shopping center at it in 1965 has become the region’s third-largest employment center after Center City and University City, and that shopping center has morphed into the largest mall in the United States in terms of actual selling space (the Mall of America outside Minneapolis is larger, but a chunk of its interior is given over to an indoor amusement park).

That puts King of Prussia in league with Tysons Corner, Va., a similar semi-rural crossroads that became the ur-edge city. And Sweeney points out that down there, his firm was also part of a coalition that successfully pushed for a Washington Metro extension to serve it.

Brandywine is also leading a similar charge in a third city. “We’re the largest landlord in Austin, Texas, just as we are here in Philadelphia,” he says. “Austin is a market that does not have a robust, rail-based transportation system. One of our developments sits on the only train line in Austin, and we’ve worked with the local railroad authority to increase the number of stops in this region.”

The real estate case for transit

Why does Brandywine care so much about this issue? It’s good for the company’s bottom line, as it is for other real estate developers.

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