The construction is reshaping 34 acres where the Berkshire Knitting Mills once stood, a textile manufacturing plant that opened in 1906 and became the largest hosiery manufacturer in the world.
But most will recall it as the home of the former VF Outlet Center, which opened in 1971 and is credited with being the first outlet center in the nation.
VF Corp., based in Goldsboro, N.C., sold the outlets in 2016 to Equus Capital Partners Ltd., of Philadelphia, for $3.4 million. The complex includes more than 1 million square feet of space in nine buildings. Some of the buildings have been demolished; others are undergoing renovation.
When completed, a complex of former factories will be transformed into a walkable center with offices, retail stores and restaurants connected by outdoor pathways and landscaping features.
Many are anticipating the redeveloped Knitting Mills will have widespread economic ramifications for the surrounding area, particularly in West Reading, where there has been a resurgence of shops, restaurants and breweries along Penn Avenue, the main commercial strip in the small borough.
“More people will be coming into our borough to see what it has to offer and spending money in our stores and restaurants,” said Nicholas Imbesi, president of West Reading Borough Council.
Imbesi said the Knitting Mills will push the borough’s downtown to become a “class A” Main Street, like those in Phoenixville and West Chester, Chester County.
The fact that the former VF Outlets attracted a large developer, Imbesi said, gives him hope that others will discover West Reading.
“I think it has opened their eyes to the potential that many have overlooked in West Reading. We are built-out land-wise, but there are plenty of ripe opportunities for redevelopment in the borough,” he said.
And with a new medical school branch – representing a partnership between Drexel University College of Medicine and Tower Health – expected to be built either in the borough near Reading Hospital or nearby, things are looking up for West Reading.
“I’m very excited because the hospital has indicated they’re not providing housing for the students, so that will allow for additional development in the borough, either with homeowners or landowners,” Imbesi said.
The Knitting Mills’ anchor is a 150,000-square-foot center section of a building that will be occupied by UGI Energy Services, which will relocate its headquarters from Spring Township to the renovated building next spring, said George Haines, vice president of acquisition and development at Equus Capital Partners, now headquartered in Newtown Square, Delaware County.
Earlier this month, Equus held a groundbreaking for a 52,000-square-foot facility for a large, international medical device company that will be built on 19 acres next to the Knitting Mills.
Haines, who declined to name the company, said the firm plans to conduct research and development on cardiovascular technology at the facility. The building, which is on Park Road, will be renamed Innovation Way and is expected to be completed next fall.
Sly Fox Brewing Co. of Pottstown will start construction in a few weeks on a 5,900-square-foot restaurant on 114 Cherry Drive, near the former Rawlings sporting goods outlet at Park Road and Hill Avenue. That outlet is being renovated and will become the new home of Orthopedic Associates of Reading.
In another sign of the Knitting Mills’ drawing power, Tower Health relocated its finance and information technology departments and the Tower Health Medical Group to two renovated buildings on the campus, including the four-story building that was the former Designers Place at Hill and Eighth avenues.
In the same building, VF Outlet Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of VF Corp., relocated its headquarters and a clothing outlet to the first floor and basement. The company had been in another building on the site.
And site work has just begun on a Wawa store that will be built on the northeast corner of Penn Avenue and Park Road.
Equus expects to announce a few more projects over the next couple months.
“It’s been very active and some great companies are attracted to the redevelopment,” Haines said.
Haines said the site has excellent infrastructure, which is essential for development.
The Knitting Mills will bring professionals to the area and offers options for people to live, work and play, particularly along West Reading’s commercial center on Penn Avenue, a block and a half away.
“I think it’s a great success for the local area,” Haines said.
Many of the 99 high-end apartments at The Lofts at Narrow, a rehabbed five-story textile factory with a rooftop pool in West Reading, have been completed and luxury apartments have been proposed for the former Arrow International building in Wyomissing.
Old manufacturing sites have a unique appeal, Haines noted.
“We loved the bones of the project. We loved the buildings,” he said, adding: “We’ve taken advantage of what was built over 100 years ago and repurposed those buildings to today’s standards. That’s the best part, the adaptive reuse of these big, beautiful buildings
Equus reclaimed much of the old-growth hardwood, yellow pine that was more than 200 years old.
But bringing a manufacturing site that is more than a century old up to modern standards has its challenges. For one thing, more parking is needed today than when the buildings were factories and most people walked to work.
“Unfortunately, we had to demolish a lot of the knitting mills, but what we’re left with is highly functional space that is parked appropriately to about four spaces per 1,000 square feet,” he said.
The campus was designed to emphasize walkability, a feature that many companies tout for attracting skilled workers.
“We have a 15,000-square-foot building that we’re trying to target for something like a neighborhood grocer concept, like an organic Fresh Market. We do have some interest in that from a group, which I think will be a great boost to the project and to the neighborhood,” Haines said.