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Weiner leads Claymont Renaissance

The next New Manayunk? May, 2004
By Pam George

Business Ledger Contributing Writer

Nestled against Delaware’s northeastern border, Claymont was once a magnet for policy makers, artists and businessmen. George Washington and other Revolutionary War figures met here. Illustrator Felix O.C. Darley had a home along Philadelphia Pike. And John J. Raskob, a DuPont executive, built a spacious mansion with river views.

Then big industry came to Claymont. In 1912, General Chemical built a plant and a neighborhood, Overlook Colony, for its workers. In 1916, Worth Steel, now CitiSteel, followed suit. Worth’s neighborhood for black workers, Worthland, sat high on a hill, overlooking the complex

Blue blood gave way to blue collar. Fast-food restaurants sprung up beside mansions, and gas stations marked most intersections. By 1990, new businesses interested in Claymont were confined to dollar stores, discount retailers and check-cashing services. Vacancies increased.

"Business growth in Claymont has been fairly stagnant," says Brett Sadler, president of the Claymont Business Owners Association.

But that could change. Residents, business owners and elected officials have joined forces to revitalize Claymont. In a short time, the Claymont Community Coalition and the Claymont Renaissance have gone from grassroots lobbying to economic strategizing. And their efforts are paying off, says Ray Hester, who with his wife Judith owns the Darley Manor Inn, a bed and breakfast in Felix O.C. Darley’s former home.

The one-room Stone School, established in 1805, and the Robinson House, which dates back to 1723, have undergone restoration. The once dilapidated Fish-O-Rama is being transformed into office, retail and apartment space. The new Waterfall Banquet & Conference Center is doing a brisk business, and both Wawa and Dunkin’ Donuts plan to open Philadelphia Pike locations.

The improvements are just the beginning. If civic leaders have their way, Claymont will become a pedestrian-friendly "village," a place to live, work and shop. Think Manayunk, New Hope and downtown West Chester

Claymont already has an advantage, says New Castle County Councilman Robert Weiner, who’s helped lead the revitalization effort. "All different kinds of mass transit interconnect here, including buses and trains," he says. "We’re 20 minutes from the airport. Highways meet here. You couldn’t pick another place that is more accessible."

Yet it takes more than location, location, location to revitalize a community. Claymont must develop the qualities that define a village. "A village is a place where people can do five things: live, shop, work, play and pray. It also has to be safe and aesthetic," Weiner says.

Certainly that was once the case. In the Colonial era, Claymont—once called Naamans Creek—was a frequent stop for travelers on the Kings Highway, now Philadelphia Pike, a vital artery between Southern Delaware and Philadelphia.

During the Revolutionary War, Abraham Robinson, son-in-law of General "Mad" Anthony Wayne, purchased a home that still stands at the corner of Philadelphia Pike and Naamans Road. The house is "alive with history," says Carolyn Mercadante, vice president of the Claymont Historical Society.

In the early 1900s, the house was a studio for artists, some of whom studied with Howard Pyle. The Naamans Tea House occupied the property from 1914 until 1964. The house was on and off the market until 1967, when the state purchased it. Currently, the Claymont Historical Society, with help from the Darley Society, another local historic preservation group, operates the space.

Raskob’s estate also played host to movers and shakers. As campaign manager for the Democratic Party’s 1928 presidential nominee, Raskob held meetings in his home. In 1932, the Norbertine Order purchased the property for a preparatory school, Archmere Academy.

Most Claymont mansions had a tougher time surviving. Some were lost to highway construction and industry. Others were eclipsed, their beauty marred by their surroundings. Behind rusty buildings on CitiSteel’s property sits the Wertmuller House, once owned by Adolph Wertmuller, an artist to the King of Sweden. Behind the McDonald’s sits the Lackey Mansion.

Preservation laws today would have saved the properties, says George Lossé, president of the Claymont Community Coalition. But why didn’t residents push to protect them? "People didn’t know anything about it until it happened," says Lossé, who is resigning as Coalition president to run for one of six recently created seats on New Castle County Council. (Weiner will continue to represent a portion of the area.)

Residents were losing more than historic homes. In the 1960s, flowering trees were sacrificed to expand Philadelphia Pike to four lanes. The expansion made it difficult for pedestrians to walk to businesses across the street.

The construction of I-95 caused another rift. Claymont became separated from the Ardens, with which it once had a close connection. Then I-495 separated the main district from its northern boundary.

Set adrift, Claymont suffered an identity crisis, made worse when the Claymont High School closed in 1990. "The community had identified with the high school," Lossé says. "When that left, they lost a focal point."

The community was fed up. "People felt they weren’t getting a voice," Lossé says. To combat the frustration, the Claymont Community Coalition formed in 1994. The group organizes activities, including a neighborhood cleanup, and it’s successfully lobbied for an elementary school in the old high school. "The school has helped pull people back together," says Lossé. The group also successfully fought against the closing of the Claymont Library and the senior center.

The activities uplifted the residents, but they weren’t enough to recruit desirable businesses. Claymont needed an economic plan. The Claymont Renaissance, seeded with $25,000 from New Castle County, debuted in 2000. The group involves the major "stakeholders," Weiner says. "It includes citizens with businesses, those who have an interest in historic elements, civic association officers, as well as government officials and corporate neighbors."

Leadership includes representatives from the Claymont Community Coalition, the Claymont Business Owners Association and the Claymont Historical Society. "We’ve found that’s the best way to get things done," says Sadler. "One group doesn’t speak for the Renaissance."

The birth of the Renaissance came at the right time. Gov. Ruth Ann Minner’s "Livable Delaware" agenda promotes directing growth to areas with an existing infrastructure. The strategy is an extension of the Strategies for State Policies and Spending, adopted in 1999.

Meanwhile, New Castle County in March passed the Hometown Overlay District ordinance, which permits older communities to deviate from the Unified Development Code, or UDC. "It allows communities to reuse space," explains Weiner, who co-sponsored the ordinance.

Businesses moving into old structures, for instance, needn’t be penalized because their building is too close to the street. "They can move in without having to go to the county’s board of adjustments," Lossé says. "They can get their plan reviewed by the local board. It will save time and money, and it will give local citizens the feeling that they have some say."

The Renaissance in 2001 hired Tom Comitta, a West Chester-based town planner and landscape architect, to help design a "mixed-use" community. Known as Claymont Center, the plan concentrates on the area between Darley Road and Commonwealth Boulevard, Weiner says.

With Weiner’s assistance, the Claymont Renaissance has raised more than $250,000 in public and private funds to put toward the project. In March, the county allotted $50,000 toward design.

One of the plan’s most appealing elements is a village-like residential area, planned for what’s now Brookview Apartments. Brookview, which has more than 600 units, has been a community eyesore for decades.

Few would argue. But the landlord has been reluctant to sell at an affordable price. "The figure has gone up every time you ask," Lossé says. "So we stopped asking." Though private developers have shown an interest in the site, none have stepped forward.

Condemning the site is a politically sensitive issue. "No knight in shining armor has stepped up thus far," says Tom Comitta. Consequently, the Renaissance put the residential portion of the plan on the back burner.

Hester, whose bed and breakfast is a block from Brookivew, is disappointed. "For Claymont to become a bedroom community for yuppies—as we called them in the 1980s—something has to happen to Brookview," he maintains. "That doesn’t mean leveling it."

Indeed, just look at the former Worthland. Now known as Knollwood, the hilltop neighborhood was once so crime-riddled that fire trucks required a police escort, Today PNC Bank and the New Knollwood Civic Association are working to rehab and resell units. Buyers must agree to live in the house for a certain number of years, based on the assistance level. Other grants are provided by the New Castle County Department of Community Services. Lossé says 30 of the 150 homes are targeted.

With Brookview on hold, the Claymont Renaissance is focusing on improving Philadelphia Pike to make it more attractive and pedestrian-friendly. No small feat. Each day, about 18,100 vehicles traverse Philadelphia Pike north of its intersection with Governor Printz Boulevard.

According to DELDOT’s conceptual plan, the work will involve the area from I-495 to the new Superfresh. Lanes will narrow from 12 to 11 feet to accommodate new bicycle paths and sidewalks. Brick-colored sections will mark crosswalks, and medians will contain plants, shrubs or trees. DELDOT will also add dedicated turning lanes.

"We’re really hoping that the improvements will provide aesthetics, safety and a jumpstart to Claymont’s revitalization," says Bruce Allen, a planner for DELDOT. However, residents must wait awhile to see the results. "Right now we’ve requested $500,000 for the preliminary engineering," Allen says. "We should find out in July if that’s approved, and then design goes on for a year." Work may not commence until 2007.

The changes will "calm" traffic and give the street a cozier appearance, Comitta says. Currently buildings that face each other are 85 to 135 feet apart. Compare that to Manayunk, where buildings are just 60 feet apart, says Comitta, who helped revitalize Manayunk and downtown West Chester.

Sidewalk-hugging buildings, such as the Fish-O-Rama and Claymont Steak, are quaint, but it’s not the retro feature McDonalds’s representatives had in mind when it announced plans to demolish its existing restaurant.Plans for the new restaurant called for a 1950s-style retro appearance complete with a splashy red-and-white exterior and giant golden arches. Representatives were shocked when the community rebelled.

Comitta went on a peacekeeping mission to McDonald’s in comparable locations, such as Bucks County. He returned with pictures of classy red brick facades and metal roofs. Claymont groups approved of the style, and McDonald’s agreed to build it. Claymont residents and real estate agents Fernando Franca and Michael Wilson purchased the Fish-O-Rama. The building, once an A&P and Richardson’s Variety Store, was in serious disrepair.

The renovated building will include four upscale apartments and three commercial spaces, including a real estate office and a boutique, Franca says. The boutique will feature everything from clothes to gift baskets to vintage items, says Franca, who has a background in fashion. "It will have a high end look without high end prices," he says.

Franca, who moved from New York, is excited about Claymont’s sense of community. "In New York, we’re so removed from our neighbors," he says. "It’s such a change to be involved in the historical society and the Renaissance. It’s really a treat."

Being among the first to invest in the new Claymont does cause some apprehension, he admits. "But once the ball gets rolling, it will explode," he says. "When I first moved here, the real estate prices were low. Now it’s hard to buy. The investors are coming."

Among those investors are the owners of Lamberti’s Cucina, a regional chain with a Philadelphia Pike location. The family-owned business purchased the old Brandywine Terrace, a catering facility, and transformed it into the swank Waterfall Banquet & Conference Center.

The location was the primary draw, says Lou DeYenno, Waterfall’s general manager. "It’s right near I-495 and I-95. We have customers from Philadelphia, Baltimore, South Jersey and Delaware County." Claymont’s image was an initial concern, he says. But it’s proven unfounded. While the Renaissance would like to attract more unique businesses like Waterfall and Franca’s boutique, members are happy about the mainstream players, including Dunkin’ Donuts, which will replace a gas station. Like McDonald’s, they agreed to a brick front and a street-side location.

Wawa plans to occupy the old Brosius-Eliason property. While some aren’t pleased about the addition of a super gas station, others say it could force less attractive operations out of business, thus paving the way for more desirable businesses.

Saddler is working to establish a nonprofit development corporation a la the riverfront to serve prospective businesses. "It would be a clearing house of information on available commercial properties," he explains. "It would provide information grants or other funding."

Meanwhile, the Renaissance is analyzing buildings and vacant properties to determine their fit with the village mindset. Some might say that’s the tail wagging the dog. "I’ve seen it both ways," Comitta notes. "I’ve seen a municipally guided plan result in new investment, and I’ve seen a private land owner willing to promote new ideas."

Comitta is encouraged by the progress. "Small baby step initiatives might spark some other investment," he says "It takes a while for sparks to occur before getting bigger retailers."

But if you build it, will they come? That’s the key question. "You have to have a critical mass in an area that reads like a town center, " Comitta concludes." If you don’t have that it’s tough."

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