Upper Darby Township, Pennsylvania offers “the world in one place.”
Diversity, modern amenities, historical charm converge in Upper Darby Township
The township of more than 85,000, located adjacent to West Philadelphia, has a diverse population representing more than 100 cultures from across the globe. With such a vibrant mix of residents and the lifestyle to accommodate a multitude of interests, Upper Darby provides something for everyone.
“Upper Darby has always been a welcoming community for everyone, but especially for immigrants,” says Upper Darby Mayor, Barbarann Keffer. “We’re an immigrant hub. We estimate about 25 percent of our residents were not born in the United States.”
That diversity is reflected throughout the community, with small businesses abound offering cultural cuisines from every corner of the world. A trip down to the township’s 69th street corridor offers a selection of foods that range from your typical Irish pub to restaurants that serve Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Liberian, Indian, Italian, Korean, Mexican and Colombian foods. There’s also an annual International Festival that highlights Upper Darby’s array of cultures by celebrating everything they have with regards to food, art, and entertainment.
“You can get any sort of cuisine and groceries here,” Keffer says. “No matter their background, when people move here, I think they feel welcomed.”
So when Keffer took over as mayor in January 2020 and the township instituted a slogan contest to come up with a new motto. The winning entry, “The World In One Place,” embodies our community overall,” Keffer says. “We’re very ethnically diverse, socio-economically diverse, the housing stock is diverse. And we have such a great public transportation system that you’re not dependent on a car to live here.”
While the township has been diverse in culture for decades, that hasn’t always translated to diverse governance. After decades of being under Republican leadership, Upper Darby elected Keffer, a Democrat, and she’s come in with some big ideas and big changes to help modernize and make the township more attractive for new development and new business.
“We had what I’d call a rough transition and then three months later COVID hit,” Keffer recalls. “But my administration has completed great visible projects to signal to current and prospective residents and businesses that we’re a very forward-thinking administration. I ran on a platform of reform, revitalization and redevelopment and we’ve been bringing Upper Darby into the 21st century in terms of what we offer.”
First up, Keffer’s administration updated the township’s website, instituting online options for permit payments, parking ticket payments and downloading forms, making life easier and more accessible for residents.
Then the administration set its sights on Upper Darby’s municipal parking lot which has received a million dollar revamping to include solar kiosks and electric vehicle charging stations, as well as a bit of a facelift.
“When the mayor took office, that intersection was all concrete, blacktop and beaten-down,” says Vincent Rongione, Upper Darby’s CAO and deputy mayor. “Now, with the beautifully renovated parking lot and nice streetscaping, you will actually have a bit of shade and greenery. It’s a place where you can get a cup of coffee and sit on a bench pleasantly, as opposed to being in the middle of an asphalt sea. It’s investments like these that are focused on quality of life improvements for our residents.”
Upper Darby’s greening hasn’t stopped there. The township worked with Tree Tenders of Upper Darby this year to build a tree nursery in the area’s largest park, Naylors Run, that allows them to grow and harvest their own trees.
“We’re trying to green the entire community,” Keffer explains. “The tree nursery is a great feature. People that are in the park really love it, and it’s an opportunity to teach people about the importance of trees and their overall value.”
Upper Darby has even gone so far as to bring in goats to help remove invasive plants from its portion of the Darby Creek Trail.
“The goats have been doing really incredible work that allows us to avoid using heavy machinery which would otherwise disrupt the nearby residences and contribute to further pollution,” Keffer says. “We have completely transformed Gillespie Park where you can now see across the creek for the first time in decades.”
The township is currently working on attaining its SolSmart designation as well, which recognizes communities for making it faster, easier and more affordable to transition to solar energy. This will allow the process of installing solar panels on homes easier for Upper Darby residents.
They’re also close to breaking ground on the township’s first Community Center, which will be the only LEED-certified building ever built in Upper Darby. The Community Center will have a green roof and an outdoor classroom.
These environmentally conscious investments taken on by the Keffer administration will help encourage others to make more sustainable choices for their own homes, businesses and developments, Rongione says.
“Many of the mayor’s capital investment priorities involve leadership by example,” he says. “The mayor wants to reinvest, revitalize and reform, and while she’s raising the standards for our residents and for our developers, it’s important that we also hold ourselves to those standards.
“When we build the first ever Community Center in Upper Darby, it’s going to be LEED certified, and we believe that sends a signal to developers that we expect them to build LEED-certified in the future. And once we have that SolSmart designation it will streamline the permitting process and it will make it easier for our residents to follow the lead of their government. It’s important that we’re not asking them to do and invest in things that we’re not investing in.”
Outside of sustainability, Keffer’s administration has also implemented the first ever Upper Darby planning commission, as well as adding a director of community and economic development to the township’s roster. Additionally, they’re working to add a local chamber of commerce to help better support and amplify Upper Darby’s businesses.
“Upper Darby has unique needs and unique businesses,” says Rita LaRue, Director of Community and Economic Development and Deputy CAO. “A local chamber of commerce could do even more to support the Upper Darby small business community.”
All of the investments made recently into Upper Darby are aimed at increasing their current resident’s quality of life and appeal to potential residents, developers and businesses, while also highlighting the things that already make it a great place to be. Things like no city wage tax, great housing stock and close proximity to nearby cities like Philadelphia, New York City and D.C.
“We are trying to position Upper Darby to be competitive today and for the next two, three, four decades,” LaRue says. “We are trying to create a clean, green, walkable, transit-connected inner ring suburb. We believe that’s how we become competitive for businesses and residents well into the future.
“With our proximity to West Philadelphia and University City, the housing, the office space, the laboratory space, the technology spaces, they’ve all become so expensive that we are incredibly well positioned to compete with the next rung of places like Conshohocken and the Navy Yard that are also very expensive. We’re every bit as close and connected with similar culture and diversity.”
Development is already starting to uptick with the construction of the new Drexeline Shopping Center on Route 1. The 1950s-built commerce area is undergoing a transformation to make it a more cohesive and inviting space that will now include both retail and residential property. The newly-redesigned space will also feature walking paths and easy access to public transportation.
“The redevelopment of Drexeline is one of the large projects currently in progress,” Keffer says. “It’s great. It’s been a long time coming. It’s an 18-acre property, which has been challenging, but they’re really moving forward now.”
The Drexline development fills in a hole in the township’s otherwise robust housing market.
“How do you attract well-educated, entrepreneurial young people? You need mid-market, affordable luxury housing stock for them to live in,” Rongione says. “And that’s why the mayor has worked with developers to add that aspect to our housing stock.”
Looking ahead to the next few years, Keffer and Rongione plan to continue to build on the foundation they have laid for the future of Upper Darby, with the hopes of attracting even more business to the blossoming township.
“I think now that we are coming out of the pandemic, the future is going to look like really making a pitch to the business community that Upper Darby is the place to locate your next satellite office,” Rongione says.
“The idea is that we’re putting in place the things that are needed to make it attractive so that businesses want to locate in Upper Darby. And I think that’s what you’re going to see.”
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AT A GLANCE
Upper Darby Township, Pennsylvania
What: A modernizing township of 85,000
Where: Located 30 minutes outside Center City Philadelphia in Delaware County
eCollect+ – www.ecollectplus.com
In early 2020, E-Collect was engaged to assist the Township Tax Office with business privilege and mercantile tax audits, collecting over 10% of the total annual budgeted business privilege tax budget during this period for years 2020 and 2021. E-Collect helped identify over $1.5 million in outstanding taxes and collected approximately $1 million more (50% increase) for the Township during 2022 than the Township collected in the previous year.