New Britain: A college town on the move in Central Bucks

MELINDA RIZZO


New Britain’s covered bridge.

New Britain Borough is poised for change, and it’s being driven from the inside out.

While its natural resources and strategic location – between Doylestown Township and Chalfont – could easily render it an afterthought, New Britain Borough has a vibrant vision to re-create itself.

“The community realized if they didn’t chart their own future, someone else would do it,” said Sam Bryant, New Britain Borough manager.

A more walkable community with businesses, restaurants and unique retail shops in a downtown center, known as University Village, were identified as key changes during a series of public meetings and resident and business surveys, Bryant said.

Borough council and volunteers, along with officials from Delaware Valley University, Bryant said, are collaborating on a plan to revitalize the borough with the goal of creating a university village.

As Delaware Valley University lies within New Britain Borough, teaming up with the newly crowned university was a natural fit.

Delaware Valley College became Delaware Valley University in 2015. Under its new auspices, it’s now able to grant advanced graduate degrees and doctorates.

In looking at the roughly 2- square-mile borough’s assets, Bryant said, reinventing New Britain as a college town emerged.

“The borough showed us a concept of the University Village, and we’ve had discussions about it and our philosophy,” said Art Goon, vice president of enrollment management and community relations for Delaware Valley University.

With the addition of more graduate programs and associated faculty to teach them, Goon said a university visioning process was under way. “What does Delaware Valley University want to be and how can the borough support some of that?” Goon asked.

From discussions about what types of shops would appeal to young adults to the possible creation of a business incubator, Goon said, there were many mutually beneficial opportunities to explore.

“The university is one of our most unique assets,” Bryant said.

Delaware Valley University currently has about 1,810 students.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, New Britain Borough’s resident population is about 3,037.

While New Britain’s past includes picturesque covered bridges and pastoral vistas, parks and an outdoor nature preserve, for decades the former Butler Avenue (Route 202) served as a throughway, bringing in tourists and visitors, commerce and trade.

But the completion of the 202 Parkway, which diverts traffic around New Britain became a catalyst for borough officials and the community to take a hard look at their future.

“The challenge for us was what we become economically,” Bryant said.

“Butler Avenue would be a local road we are looking at to develop, in particular, toward the interests of young people,” explained Peter LaMontagne, vice president of New Britain Borough Council. Pub restaurants and coffee shops as well as social activities to add to what the university offers, top the list, LaMontagne said.

Adding more sidewalks, and bicycle and pedestrian friendly amenities, is part of the overall community redevelopment plan, Bryant said.

“We are largely built out. It was hard to see where any growth could come,” LaMontagne said.

The borough was once home to a picture framing factory and several grain mills over the years. A proposal is currently underway for the redevelopment of the former framing factory site into housing, Bryant said.

So the community got to work, envisioning what Butler Avenue would look like in 20 years. “We got ahead of it to shape what we want,” LaMontagne said.

New Britain Borough currently has some retail, professional services and a light industrial zone.

While carved from New Britain Township in 1928, the borough has a long history of residents beginning with the native Lenni Lenape Native Americans. The New Britain Baptist Church, established in 1740, continues to serve worshipers today, and New Britain is also home to Pine Valley Covered Bridge and the Wilma Quinlin Nature Preserve.

Generous private and business land donations, along with volunteers to create and maintain the nearly 30-acre tract make the nature preserve a treasured local jewel.

Built in 1842, Pine Valley Covered Bridge is significant because of its age and because it remains in use today, according to Bruce Burkart, a longtime resident and local historian.

Burkart said New Britain Borough’s greatest asset, though, is its residents. “We have a large group of dedicated volunteers,” he said.

From creating programs and maintaining parks and summer youth camp programs, volunteers are active in the borough’s operations and its direction.

“We have an extraordinary amount of volunteers,” LaMontagne said.

LaMontagne pointed out that the building in Covered Bridge Park is operated by the New Britain Civic Association. The money for the building was raised by donors large and small, and the actual construction was completed this year, largely by volunteers.

It is modeled after the old New Britain Train Station designed by Frank Furness about 1890, which burned about 20 years ago.  

The building is used by over 200 kids at the summer camp, run by the borough and the civic association.

“Quite an accomplishment,” LaMontagne said.



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