Looking toward Newtown’s Future
With well-planned commercial and residential projects underway, local builder and developer Thomas K. Fischer believes the borough of Newtown has arrived at a pivotal point in its history
by Bill Donahue

Thomas K. Fischer is many things, including an award-winning builder, developer and restorer of historic homes as proprietor of Thomas K. Fischer Building and Historical Preservation. He’s also a native Newtonian—meaning he was born and raised in Newtown, one of Bucks County’s most historic and distinctive boroughs.

Newtown has shaped him, even woven itself into the very fabric of his being. He has lived in Newtown his entire life, after all. He went to Council Rock and The George School. He was baptized, confirmed, was a choirboy and an acolyte, and was married at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Washington Avenue. As an adult, he made the conscious choice to root his business in Newtown and establish himself as an expert in maintaining—and, in some cases, manufacturing—the “simple elegance” for which the borough’s historic homes have become known.

Some of his fondest memories were made walking along State Street, Newtown’s hub of commerce and sociability. As a child, he enjoyed breakfast with his mother at Judy’s Restaurant, “where anyone who was anyone would be,” he recalls. He bought his clothes at the Savage Brothers’ haberdashery and Flum’s Department Store. He shopped at Hoover’s Pharmacy.

Newtown has evolved considerably in the years since. State Street remains the center of the borough’s universe, yet most of the names and faces have changed. Judy’s is now the Zebra-Striped Whale. Savage Brothers has become the David J. Witchell salon and spa. Flum’s Department Store yielded to The Gap. Mr. Hoover’s pharmacy gave way to Starbucks.

Although the borough has changed to suit the needs of a growing populace, Newtown may have arrived at a pivotal moment in its history. Fischer has observed gridlock occasionally snarling the borough’s central arteries, especially around Christmastime, while downtown parking can be difficult to come by, which, in turn, can hamper healthy commerce.

What Newtown needs, as Fischer sees it, is “governed growth,” and he believes new projects currently underway, which blend residential and commercial uses, have the capacity to “bring Newtown into the 21st century.” At the same time—and this is an essential part of the equation—the projects would do so without jeopardizing the quaintness and history that have made the borough such a special place.

He cites two projects in particular. The first is the Promenade at Sycamore, which has arisen on a site in the heart of Newtown, where the old Acme once stood. Developed by Jim Worthington, the owner of the world-class Newtown Athletic Club, the Promenade at Sycamore, when completed, will be a historically fashionable mixed-use development of luxury apartments and anchor stores, including Anthropologie.

The other and more contested project is Steeple View, an ambitious development envisioned by prominent developer Allan Smith, whose past work in the borough includes the Stocking Works office complex. When and if the project receives final approval, Steeple View will encompass multiple mixed-use retail and residential buildings, a multilevel parking garage, an open space park and a stream. Steeple View has received partial approval but has not yet broken ground. The project has received strong support from some residents, though others have expressed anxiety over the unknowns and the potential changes.

Fischer worries that any further delays in “green lighting” the project could ultimately compromise Newtown’s promising future.

“Ultimately I think everyone will benefit,” he says. “I believe Steeple View will bring more value to Newtown and make Newtown more attractive to businesses and residents alike. Allan has done his due diligence. This [development] takes my historic Newtown and enhances it. It brings it into the 21st century. It brings in a commercial tax base to fund services and repair roads. And it attempts to deal with the traffic and parking issues we have.

“You can’t see the future, but historically Newtown has done very well in crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s to make sure any new development is authentic and beneficial to the community,” he continues. “I believe if we don’t plan to make an improvement in this capacity—a planned development like Allan’s—there’s a chance it will be done in a piecemeal fashion, and in a fashion that would not be as attractive nor as effective. The Newtown Historical Association has been pivotal and essential in the process; it has created and maintained value in Newtown.”

Fischer sees the irony in the fact that he—a man who, through his historic renovation and preservation work, essentially spends his days keeping Newtown’s homes rooted firmly in the past—is pushing for things to change. He thinks the Promenade and Steeple View will be particularly alluring to a hugely influential demographic segment: Americans ages 65 and older, which, by 2029, will represent more than 20 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Fischer sees certain parallels between the Newtown of 2015 and the Philadelphia of the late 1980s, when the city was in the earliest stages of an expansion that would help shape it into one of the world’s most dynamic cities.

Philadelphia’s renaissance revolved largely around City Hall, topped with a statue of William Penn, being the tallest building in Philadelphia. By the time its construction ended in 1901, at least two other buildings around the world had exceeded its height. It did, however, stand as the city’s tallest building—until 1987. That was the year the construction of Liberty Place broke the “gentlemen’s agreement” that until then had kept all of Philadelphia’s buildings no taller than the brim of William Penn’s hat.

“Philadelphia is one of the most historical cities in the country,” Fischer says. “When things started changing and they started putting up high rises that were taller than Billy Penn, people thought they would lose the city. They thought the world would end as we know it. But it wound up emphasizing the historical aspects of the city even more. It gave us a wonderful contrast. It made Philadelphia an international city.

“I feel Newtown is at that same threshold,” he continues. “When we allow this development, Newtown will blossom again. With any development you risk congestion, traffic, noise, more people—and more people from different places—and there is a certain sadness that comes with change, because you can’t go back. Still, I resort to the Philadelphia example. People thought Philadelphia would never be the same, and it never was, but what happened to it was an amazing transformation.”

Fischer credits a number of individuals with striking the delicate balance between Newtown’s marriage of progress and preservation. This includes not only developers such as Smith and Worthington but also the likes of general contractor Eric Johnson and energy-company proprietor Eugene (“Chuck”) Charlton Jr., both of whom are rooted in Newtown. Likewise, Jeffrey L. Marshall, president of the Heritage Conservancy, and C. David and Mary Callahan of the Newtown Historical Association Inc., stand among the many people who have contributed—and continue to contribute—to Newtown’s beauty. Without them, Fischer says, Newtown would not be “the quaint 300-year-old town that has everything you could possibly want, while still being a safe place to raise my son.”

“From Bristol to Upper Black Eddy, we have some of the most historic boroughs in the country, and it’s all right here in the Delaware River Basin,” he adds. “Doylestown, Yardley, New Hope and Washington Crossing Historical Park—all of them are looking at the same issues of governed growth and finding that balance between maintaining their world-class history while answering the question of, ‘How are we going to move forward?’

“Newtown is just an unbelievable place to live, worship, shop, raise your kids and have them go to school,” he continues. “Growth is important for our survival and to meet the needs of the 21st century. With the Promenade and Steeple View, I think we accomplish that, and I think it’s going to enhance Newtown as we know it, making it an even better place to live.”

Thomas K. Fischer Building and Historical Preservation
215-860-8053 | www.tkfischerbuilder.com

Photograph by Allure West Studios