Newtown would restore creek to its original glory
Back in the days of William Penn, the creek that meandered through the growing village of Newtown anchored the town common, powered the gristmill, and provided water for animals and crops at nearby farms.
But the center of the Bucks County town shifted over the centuries, and now the creek is barely visible, running largely out of sight along parking lots behind the main shopping district of what was the county seat from 1726 to 1813.
A plan by local residents, however, could restore the creek to prominence.
They have formed the Newtown Creek Coalition and hope to turn the creek back into a focal point by creating a creekwalk flanked by shops and restaurants.
Local lawyer Michael Sellers, a member of the coalition as well as the Newtown Borough Council, conjures up images of a small-town version of Amsterdam or Florence, with lighted pedestrian bridges and cafés. "Imagine walking along there at night," he said last week.
Jayne Spector, a coalition member who is an urban planner and landscape architect, said there has been a lot of local interest.
"Everybody is trying to take a look at what a natural local treasure we have," she said.
The coalition's plan dovetails with a proposal for the now-defunct Stockburger Chevrolet site, which backs onto the creek at the edge of the shopping district and is slated to be transformed into a residential and retail complex.
"It's a unique opportunity," said developer Allan H. Smith, who said he was planning from 250 to 300 condos, plus retail space along the planned creekwalk at the edge of the property.
Smith said his plan, now before the Borough Planning Commission, was in line with Penn's vision for the creek.
"The creek was the common area for everyone," Smith said.
The creek, which starts north of town in Wrightstown Township, is only eight to 10 feet wide, but nine miles long. It flows south through Newtown and then into the larger Neshaminy Creek in Middletown Township.
According to local history, Penn came to this part of Bucks County after laying out Philadelphia in 1682.
"This is where I propose to build my 'new town,' " he was said to proclaim.
Two years later, his surveyor devised a plan for what was first called New Township and later became Newtown.
That plan laid out surrounding farm parcels in the shape of pie slices, with the point of each slice reaching the creek. In that way, each farm had access to water. For the town center, Penn reserved about 30 acres of open space alongside the creek. The common provided public access to the creek.
"The creek was a very, very important part of the plan," Sellers said. "We've just lost it over the years."
Indeed, town leaders grew tired of maintaining the common and sold it off in lots.
Jeff Marshall, chief preservation officer for the Heritage Conservancy and a member of the coalition, said there are plenty of challenges ahead: storm water issues, insufficient public access, and parking lots that are too close to the creek banks.
But he said there's plenty of natural charm. "It's just a lovely creek," he said.
Marshall said the coalition was working on a draft plan and hoping for plenty of public input.
"It's really an economic development opportunity," he told several dozen people gathered recently for a public meeting about the plan.
Local businesses along State Street are largely supportive.
"The creek is a terrific asset for the community," said Dave Callahan, owner of the Newtown Hardware House, which has been in business for 142 years.
Darlene Longosky, owner of Mom's Bake at Home Pizza on State Street, said the plan for the old auto dealership also calls for more parking, which is needed for visitors to the shops and restaurants in town.
"Anything that would include parking would be a tremendous help," she said.
Pam Fitzpatrick, who lives in surrounding Newtown Township, said the idea of reviving the creek could have more than a commercial impact as well.
"I think we need places for the kids and family to walk, and I think a pedestrian access is really crucial to creating a community," Fitzpatrick said.
The notion of a relaxing walk along a creek, she said, also might have an impact on the community psyche by "encouraging people to slow down."
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