Construction is ongoing at Kennett Pointe, but Kennett Township and local community members have been laying the foundations for this project for years.
What’s visible now, at the corner of Ways Lane across from Waywood Beverage, is the frame of a mixed-use building that will house ground-floor retail space and apartments above. A thoughtfully arranged community of 53 townhomes will soon be under construction as well. The design for the 13-acre site includes green spaces, walking paths, several different public squares, and an art studio. Local developer Don Robitzer smiles as he describes a vibrant, beautiful place where people will enjoy living, shopping, dining, and meeting friends and neighbors—a place people will love to call home.
Part of what sets a development like Kennett Pointe apart is the community process that has brought it into being. “We’re collaborators,” says Robitzer, Senior Vice President and COO of The Commonwealth Group and co-founder of Montchanin Builders. The 2015 Kennett Region Economic Development Study was a catalyst for him and his partners to look at projects here. This study, a collaboration between the Borough of Kennett Square, Kennett Township, and Kennett Collaborative (formerly Historic Kennett Square) with additional funding from the County, Longwood Gardens, and Genesis HealthCare, involved significant public input. Robitzer believes the community-driven charette process is an essential layer in the blueprint for a successful project, and when he saw the Gateway project that the Economic Development Study identified he knew he wanted to be part of taking the concept from vision to reality.
The original name of this project—Kennett Gateway—describes its locus at the entrance to Kennett and its function as a community anchor at the eastern edge of town. While the name has changed, the vision remains the same. Diane Hicks, Director of Planning and Zoning for Kennett Township, says the concept for this mixed-use development that came out of the Economic Development Study was thought provoking and the first of its type for the Township. “I found the idea a step in the right direction, a move to develop in line with the current needs of the community and one that would aid in developing residential and economic opportunities,” she says.
When he’s evaluating new projects, Robitzer looks for sites that are infill or that can tie into existing infrastructure, and Kennett Pointe is no exception. Kennett Pointe’s design maximizes the shape and assets of this slice of land and will be serviced by public water and sewer. Robitzer has also appreciated collaborating with the municipality throughout the process. “Kennett Township has been very supportive in finding ways to make it work,” he says.
Building Buildings Built to Last
Robitzer describes the work of both Commonwealth and Montchanin Builders as “contextual local development” that fits into the fabric of the surrounding community. At Kennett Pointe, for example, the brick exterior of the commercial building carries into the aesthetic of the town and, together with the Victory building, will create “bookends” for the town.
The Commonwealth Group is a third-generation family-owned development company founded by Robitzer’s father-in-law, Brock Vinton, in 1973. Robitzer, who focuses on all aspects of new projects from inception to final delivery, joined the firm in 2000 and enjoys working as a team with Vinton, Tim Jones, and Tony Ruggio on quality-driven projects that are unique to each community. “In 2008, Claymont became the first community in Delaware to approve a charette-driven TND (traditional neighborhood development) with form-based code, including an affordable housing component and density bonuses,” Robitzer says. “In 2009, Tim and I joined forces with homebuilding veteran Tony Ruggio and launched Montchanin Builders to build this site.”
In addition to engaging in these in-depth planning processes before breaking ground, Commonwealth is concerned for the future, too. “We use natural, hardy materials that are built to withstand the ages,” Robitzer says. Building better isn’t easy. With Covid-related delays compounded by challenging weather conditions, coordination and timing have become more critical than ever at Kennett Pointe. D&B Construction is well on its way with the mixed-use building, and Montchanin will begin building the townhomes later this month.
Although thoughtful concern for residents is central to all the communities that Commonwealth and Montchanin build, Robitzer brings another level of personal investment to building in his own community. “I want to build something that my community wants to be part of,” he says. “It’s important to us that this mix of housing and authentic retail spaces will enhance the community.”
As the husband of a small retail business owner, Heather Robitzer of No. 109 Shop, Robitzer knows how important it is for new establishments to support existing businesses. “Creating density in this corridor, filling in gaps and meeting needs, lifts the community and helps the businesses on State Street, the purveyors on Birch Street, and the community as a whole,” says Robitzer.
The plan for the commercial space at Kennett Pointe is for a restaurant-market space as well as three or four smaller retail businesses with a public courtyard. Robitzer describes a Parisian garden landscaped with gravel paths, a trellis, and park benches, a performance pavilion with event lawn, and walking paths—a place where people can meet their neighbors for coffee, where local employees can enjoy lunch or grab dinner to go, and where a variety of community-focused programming like craft fairs, concerts, children’s performances, movie nights, and more will activate this public space.
Connecting walking paths at Kennett Pointe to destinations in the Borough like Birch and State Streets is part of the larger vision for the area, and the neighborhood’s new sidewalks will bring pedestrian access to the Borough one step closer. Kennett Pointe has already sparked discussions about further infill projects, down Ways Lane as well as on Cypress, which could drive this residential and commercial artery coming in and out of Kennett.
Centered Clay Studio: Bringing Community Connection and New Life to a Historic Building
Contextual development also means making use of existing resources. As part of this creative and community-centered vision, Robitzer has been working with local artist Debby Wyatt to give a historic building and “hidden gem” on the site new life as a creative and inclusive art studio space.
The original Italian American Club, built in 1922 and located across the street from their present building, which was constructed in 1949, is listed in the Township’s Historic Inventory. “Until recently the original club house was used as the Boy Scout headquarters for Troop #53,” says Hicks. “To the credit of Montchanin Builders, the historic structure is being renovated to create an adaptive reuse of the historic structure.”
Robitzer’s sign outside the repurposed historic building on Birch Street that houses Braeloch Brewing, Chaikhana Chai, and West Branch Distilling Company encapsulates his creative and collaborative approach with an invitation: “Come join us! Bring your ideas.” Wyatt saw this sign and brought her concept for a pottery studio to Robitzer, who knew immediately that the historic building, with its abundance of natural light and accessible parking, would be the perfect space. He also knew that Wyatt’s Centered Clay Studio, which will offer clay arts education and open studio access for artists of all levels in a fully equipped environmentally conscious clay studio, would further enhance the community at Kennett Pointe.
“It’s a great building—it’s so open and the light is amazing, and Don is a great partner,” Wyatt says. She picked up pottery 14 years ago when, after years spent raising children and building a career, she took a series of classes and fell in love with the process and possibility of working with clay. She continued her studies, bought her own wheel, and joined a potters’ guild.
When Wyatt moved to Kennett Square four years ago, she found no local studio space where she could create alongside others working on their own projects. “I’ve experienced a lot of personal growth through my journey with clay,” she says, “and I want to build that here and share that.” Having researched similar spaces through her travels around the country over the years, she describes Centered as her utopian space, bringing the best of these different places together.
She’s delighted to have found a space in Kennett so she can be fully engaged in the community where she lives and is excited to introduce people who have never touched clay before to the process as well to offering unlimited studio access and some pop-up display space to members. “We’ll start with workshops for adults and see where that takes us,” she says. Centered will have two kilns, ten wheels, and large work tables. Wyatt, who is hoping to open the studio in August, is busy testing specially made studio glazes and preparing behind the scenes for this long-held dream to become a reality. Sign up here to receive updates about Centered Clay Studio.
Robitzer says Kennett Pointe’s first townhomes should be ready late summer, and the mixed-use building sometime early in 2023. When the building work is finished and people are living, working, and enjoying the spaces at Kennett Pointe, the only part of its foundations that will still be visible is the spirit of the community process that brought it into being.