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Shopping center plan runs into a barrage of flak

Delaforum News
October  3,  2007

Woodlawn Trustees, the perennial good guys of land management in the Concord Pike corridor, found itself in an unaccustomed position -- on the receiving end of near-solid opposition to its latest development proposal.

The nonprofit conservation organization cut a deal with the Stoltz real estate organization to develop the 43.5-acre tract on the southwest corner of the Concord Pike-Naamans and Beaver Valley Roads intersection for a regional shopping center. The site, which Woodlawn has owned since 1925, is one of the remaining two large tracts along the pike that have not been put to commercial use.

Representatives of neighboring business interests, a national corporation and community organizations in the vicinity, along with two county councilmen, told a public hearing conducted by the Planning Board on behalf of itself and the Department of Land Use that they want to keep it that way.

A department report concerning its initial review of an exploratory filing listed 28 points to be resolved before the plan can advance to the next step in the approval process, leading off with a comment that proposed rezoning of the property "may be considered inappropriate at this time."

The only favorable testimony at the hearing on Oct. 2 came from supporters of a national chain of health-food grocery stores which has been identified as the prospective lead tenant in the shopping center and a business owner who views commercialization as inevitable.

Planning board chairman Victor Singer said the purpose of the hearing was merely to gather information and the public's views as the department conducts an exploratory review of the proposal. The board will not make a recommendation at this point. Still to come, at an undetermined future time, will be the bid to rezone the property, now designated as residential, for commercial use. County Council will have the final say on rezoning if the plan advances that far.

Woodlawn's lawyer, Pam Scott, said development of the site is necessary to generate income to finance the organization's low-rent housing activities in Wilmington. Asked by Planning Board member Sandra Anderson if residential development would serve that purpose, Scott replied, "From our perspective it did not make sense to do that on this site." Pressed further, she acknowledged that she was talking about "economic sense."

The strongest objection was lodged by Jaynine Warner on behalf of A.I.G. Marketing, a national insurance firm which has its offices across Beaver Valley road from the Woodlawn site. She described the Woodlawn plan as "a business risk for us" and said that, if it comes to be, the company will consider taking its 1,000-person workforce elsewhere.

Most of the objections at the hearing centered on the likelihood of significantly increased traffic in an already congested area.

Scott explained that an unusual north-south and east-west bisecting of the site by what would be public roads was included in the plan at the behest of the Delaware Department of Transportation as a way to alleviate further traffic woes. Also provided are two traffic circles and an exit onto Ramsey Road.

Left turns from southbound Concord Pike onto eastbound Naamans Road and from westbound Naamans Road onto southbound Concord Pike would be eliminated. Drivers would have to loop through either the new shopping center or the existing Brandywine Town Center  to make those movements. Referring to that as a permanent detour, Charles Landry, president of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, said it would be an expedient "detached from reality ... that has never been done before."

Tricia Gamello and Ellen Reed, testifying in tandem, said they supported the plan because it would bring a Whole Foods outlet to Delaware. The chain specializes in selling organically-raised and gluten-free food. Reed said "it is not just another grocery store," but Dan Tanzer, testifying on behalf of the Shop Rite store in the shopping center adjacent to the Woodlawn property, said that establishment carries "a full line" of such products.

Scott acknowledged that Whole Foods is the only prospective tenant lined up so far. The plan depicts several other stores on the site.

Councilman Robert Weiner, who represents the area, testified that the issue goes well beyond "the myopic desires of those who wish to shop at a specialty Whole Foods supermarket." Instead, he said, "the community would be better served" if the site were developed for age-restricted senior housing and medical facilities.

Councilman John Cartier said there is "a dizzying array of retail options for the public" along Concord Pike, adding, "It's a matter of 'why more?'."

Richard Abbott, a lawyer representing nearby Concord Mall, testified that the proposed Woodlawn project would "create additional problems at an already unsafe intersection."

However, John Lawless, owner of a car-washing establishment on Naamans Road, said that "anybody who thinks that this [property] is going to remain a cornfield is naive."

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