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Woodlawn development plan links Whole Foods to Del.

By MAUREEN MILFORD, The News Journal
Posted Friday, May 4, 2007

Woodlawn Trustees Inc. of Wilmington, one of the most influential Brandywine Valley landowners for more than 100 years, is moving forward with a plan to develop nearly 43 acres at U.S. 202 and Beaver Valley Road as an upscale shopping center.

Whole Foods Market Inc. in Austin, Texas, a natural and organic foods supermarket, has expressed serious interest in leasing a more than 62,000-square-foot free-standing store in the center, said Pamela J. Scott, the lawyer on the project. Whole Foods would anchor the 200,000-square-foot center. It would be the chain's first supermarket in Delaware.

Amy Schaefer, spokeswoman for Whole Foods, said because of competitive pressures the company doesn't discuss potential sites. No other retailers have been named for the center.

The project, which would require rezoning of the parcel, is expected to face an uphill battle from the community in getting the necessary land approvals. Most of the parcel is zoned high-density residential, Scott said. A pre-exploratory sketch plan was filed Wednesday with the New Castle County Department of Land Use.

Woodlawn, a not-for-profit company that develops selected parcels to raise money to preserve parkland along the Brandywine and provide affordable rental housing in Wilmington, said the income from the project would be used to fund its mission.

The land is located on the high-traffic Concord Pike corridor at a busy intersection between Concord Mall and Brandywine Town Center.

"I'm skeptical of developing that intersection," said Chuck Landry, president of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, or CCOBH. "The intersection is failing and anything you build there will add additional traffic. I'm not at all hostile to Woodlawn Trustees -- they're good stewards. It's a worthwhile cause. It puts Woodlawn in an unfortunate position because it's a very bad intersection, and it's getting worse."

Phil Lavelle, chairman of CCOBH's zoning committee, said Woodlawn has a "tough nut to crack."

New Castle County Councilman Robert S. Weiner, R-Brandywine Hundred West, said the community's first choice would for the parcel to remain open space for sports fields and other recreational uses.

"Based upon the strong objections heard from the community, I anticipate opposing a commercial strip. First of all, we already have two supermarkets plus Trader Joe's. We know from our history that three supermarkets can't survive," Weiner said.

Weiner said he had less of an objection to Woodlawn building housing.

Officials at Trader Joe's could not be reached for comment.

Working with the community

But another group has signed an Internet petition started by Tricia Gomella of Chadds Ford, Pa., to bring Whole Foods to the area. The 493 signatures are mostly from Delaware residents, Gomella said.

"That whole area is built up. I'm not against building on that site," Gomella said. "I am a physician, and I also have a child that needs gluten-free products. If you're looking for any special dietary needs products you can't find enough of them. That's why we need this grocery store. This is a different grocery store. If fulfills a unique niche."

Ellen Reid, of Centreville, said she has to drive over an hour to Main Line Philadelphia to get gluten-free foods for her daughter at the Whole Foods store there. "Nobody sells consistently good, gluten-free, wheat-free food that tastes good," Reid. "I think there's enough business to keep all the supermarkets happy. I don't think they are in competition."

But even if the land-use approvals go through without a hitch, it could be three years before a store is opened, Scott said.

"Every land use project in New Castle County is challenging. Like with most projects, we expect to encounter differences of opinion. Our goal is to work with the community to try and make this a good project," Scott said.

To construct the center, Woodlawn has reached an agreement with an affiliate of Stoltz Real Estate Partners in Greenville to build, lease and manage the center, pending land-use approvals. The standard Woodlawn land lease runs for 60 years with two 10-year options, according to Woodlawn's lawyer, John M. Bloxom IV.

Plans for the project call for the center to be 45 percent open space. It will have five free-standing buildings and a striplike shopping center at the corner of Beaver Valley Road and Ramsey Road. The design calls for two boulevards to run through the project.

History of helping less-fortunate

Woodlawn has owned the site for the proposed shopping center since 1925. During that time, it has been farmed or left as meadow.

Woodlawn, founded in 1901 by William Poole Bancroft, has been credited with preserving the natural beauty of the east bank of the Brandywine from Wilmington into Delaware County, Pa.

Bancroft, whose family owned a textile mill on the river, predicted growth would move north from Wilmington. He was interested in good city planning with an emphasis on providing public parks, parkways and well-planned development.

In 1906, Bancroft began acquiring land along the Brandywine outside Wilmington city limits with the idea of preserving the hills and valleys. To generate income for those activities, Woodlawn developed portions of its property removed from the river along the U.S. 202 corridor, including planned residential communities on the west side of U.S. 202, such as Woodbrook, Edenridge and Tavistock.

The second aspect of Woodlawn's mission is to provide affordable, quality rental housing to people of modest means. Today, it owns more than 600 properties in the city.

The substantial income that would result from the shopping center development on U.S. 202 would be used to further the company's affordable housing and open space activities, Bloxom said. Bancroft family members still serve on the board.

But Weiner said the Whole Foods shopping center doesn't fit Bancroft's mission.

"If you were to talk to the founder of Woodlawn Trustees, he would say, 'Why are you building all this commercial?' " Weiner said.

Contact Maureen Milford at 324-2881 or

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