How Perkasie Lost Its First Town Center

A generation before Perkasie’s Great Fire of 1988, the town’s leaders literally bulldozed its first historic area, including the grand home of Perkasie’s founder. Urban Renewal was perhaps Perkasie’s greatest controversy of the 1960s.

After World War II, the mass demolition of older buildings to be replaced with new ones became a national policy after Congress passed the Housing Act of 1949. During the 1950s, Philadelphia started a program of taking the wrecking ball to older neighborhoods considered as “blighted.” However, these areas had been harmed greatly by discriminatory lending policies since the 1930s that led to their disrepair.

The former Perkasie town center in the 1970s.

In suburban Bucks County, the situation was much different. In 1960, the county commissioners asked for a study of “suspect areas” in the region that could qualify for urban renewal funds to generate new business in the region. And by September 1960, state and federal agencies prepared the first modernization plan for Perkasie Borough. The plan set the stage for a seven-year battle over Perkasie’s future.

The plan said Perkasie would benefit from the proposed Route 309 expressway, and it urged that Perkasie’s open land, including its Third Ward, be considered used for new housing developments. Most significantly, the plan called for a new shopping and parking district that would improve the “looks and attractiveness” of Perkasie’s central business area.

In March 1963, the Bucks County Redevelopment Authority was formed to promote countywide urban renewal efforts. A month later, Perkasie Borough Council approved work on a proposed downtown redevelopment plan in conjunction with the Pennridge Chamber of Commerce.

The Union Hotel block was the focus of Victorian Perkasie.

News came out in October 1963 that the plan would include the demolition of the old town center, between Sixth and Seventh Streets, and Chestnut and Market Streets, including the Herstine Building (now the Treasure Trove). The Perkasie News-Herald cautiously endorsed the plan but wanted to see more details. Three Borough council members openly opposed it. Also opposed were Walter Herstine, whose building was Perkasie’s first commercial center in the 1850s and attorney Donald Smith, whose Victorian office was across from the Herstine building. It was clear by May 1964 that Perkasie residents were divided over urban renewal as the public waited for the release of an official plan. Lost in the demolition would be the original 1872 Perkasie Hotel and the mansion of town founder Joseph A. Hendricks.

Although the plan was not due until January 1965, it became known that the old town center would be replaced with a modern shopping center with expanded parking. The federal government would fund $358,000 to buy the historic buildings and then bulldoze them. By December 1965, the federal government approved Perkasie’s plan, leaving the final decision to Perkasie Borough Council after public hearings. In all, 12 buildings were set for demolition.

In March 1966, Bucks County gave Perkasie Borough Council a six-week deadline to approve the project or lose the federal funds. At that point, council removed the Herstine Building from the demolition list. However, Walter Herstine said the plan called for building improvements he had to fund, or the building would be demolished, too. Others objected because the plan didn’t guarantee the shopping center’s construction, and the demolished block could sit vacant for years. The project had grown to $410,000 with Perkasie contributing $51,000 in funds.

On April 13, 1966, the final public hearing was conducted at the Perkasie Elementary School (now Guth Elementary), with 300 people in attendance. And on April 21, 1966, Perkasie Borough Council approved the plan in a 5-4 vote. Mayor Claude Renner, a plan supporter, did not veto the council’s decision. In the end, nine historic properties were set for demolition and the Borough’s leaders staked their hopes on a new shopping center and parking facility that would attract regional visitors using the new Route 309 expressway.

Mayor Renner (left) starts the demolition process, January 1968

The buildings were demolished and the land cleared in 1968. Now all that was left was for the Bucks County Redevelopment Authority to find a builder for the shopping center. In May 1969, Walter Herstine lost a long legal battle with Bucks County over his building. The county made an eminent domain claim but decided not to demolish the historic structure. It was auctioned off, instead.

By February 1970, concerns grew in Perkasie about the redevelopment project. Only one plan had been submitted for a shopping center, by Perkasie realtor Stanley Horn, and several council members opposed the county’s eminent domain claim against Herstine. And in December 1970, the Bucks County Redevelopment Authority approved Horn’s plan, which would have established a small town square in Perkasie bordered by offices.

In September 1971, the development had received a name, Town Common, and the Redevelopment Authority had commitments from two financial service institutions and several local businesses to lead the building development. But the plan stalled in 1972 and a new plan was offered in 1973 by realtor Richard Fretz to use the property for condominiums with some shopping. Fretz’s plan for 34 townhouses in a high-rise building with underneath parking in the tract received a cool reception from Perkasie Borough council in January 1974. The Perkasie Rotary endorsed another plan to make the land into a minipark. Other ideas considered by the Borough were high-density housing, a bus station, and a new Borough Hall on the property.

By July 1974, Perkasie Borough and the Bucks County Redevelopment Authority were headed for a showdown. The Authority demanded that Perkasie build high-density senior citizen housing on the lot, or Perkasie had to buy the demolished property from Bucks County. Perkasie Borough Council rejected the idea in a 5-3 vote. Councilman Winfred Kulp voiced the frustration of most council members. “Let’s face it. It is a white elephant. Council sold us a bill of goods years ago. There were all kinds of promises. But the land is still vacant.” The Redevelopment Authority responded by announcing the land would be place at public auction.

Shelly & Sons development plan

The dispute ended in September 1974 when local businessman Willard L. Shelly proposed buying the lot to add a new hardware store to Perkasie, along with parking. After seven years, the project finally had a viable partner. In August 1975, the Shelly family reached a final agreement with all parties to buy the property for $50,000. The Shelly plan included a 19,000 square-foot store with parking for 53 vehicles. On October 9, 1976, the new Shelly & Sons Hardware and Materials Center had its formal public opening.

In the end, the federal government’s Urban Renewal program yielded mixed results at best. In 1967, when Perkasie’s plan was approved, only 31 percent of properties that had been bulldozed nationally were under development or construction. The national program ended in 1974.

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