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The Preservation Puzzle: Woodlawn Trustees a Century Later - Community News

Woodlawn Trustees owns most of the land between the Brandywine Creek and Concord Pike from Garden of Eden Road to just north of the Pennsylvania border.

By Jesse Chadderdon
Community News
Posted Jul 29, 2008 @ 10:50 AM
Wilmington, Del. —

On the wall of the conference room at the Woodlawn Trustees’ Wilmington office hangs founder William Bancroft’s hand-drawn rendering of his vision of the City expanding along the East Bank of the Brandywine toward the Pennsylvania line.

It is simultaneously a meticulous and stunning piece of work, with residential city blocks etched in perfect symmetry, seamlessly intertwined with public parkland and the necessary commercial entities to support the surrounding community.

By all accounts, it is a flawless example of urban planning, reflective of Bancroft’s work in the City itself that led to the prominent area surrounding the parkway that bears his name.

But Bancroft did have one shortcoming: he was unable to predict the future.

In the 1950s, the trolley car suburbs along the Delaware River began sprawling westward. In 1960 came the completion of Interstate 95, further guaranteeing the bulk of the growth north of the City would happen further east than he had foreseen.

Concord Pike, running due north from Wilmington, would be the growth zone’s western boundary, and like Philadelphia Pike on the east side, it would be the home to much of the community’s retail and office buildings.

Brandywine Hundred, as we now know it, was thriving.

Today, it is a community many would say is “built-out,” with little room for new residential development on the interior, with the exception of the occasional infill project. Concord Pike is now a six-lane highway straddled by strip malls, lawyer’s offices, restaurants and hotels. And traffic. Lots of traffic.

Brandywine Hundred is also home to several parcels that Woodlawn still plans to develop – with profits going to fund Woodlawn’s affordable housing program in Wilmington. The 43-acre parcel at the southwest corner of Concord Pike and Beaver Valley Roads has been optioned to the Stoltz Realty Partners, who have plans for The Shoppes at Brandywine Valley – an $80 million proposal that has received significant pushback from nearby residents.

Others are concerned about another Woodlawn proposal less than a mile to the south – to relocate the Pilot School to a 50-acre horse farm west of Woodlawn Road and Rocky Run Parkway.

“Brandywine Hundred has changed dramatically since Woodlawn’s inception, and my concern is their strategy might not be changing with it,” said Chuck Landry, President of the Council for Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred.

Not so, says Woodlawn President Elke McGinley. She said the Stoltz proposal, for a mixed-use community with both residential and commercial units, represents smart growth, but at a smaller scale than the early sketches of Bancroft indicates for the area.

“His idea was that people needed to work, shop and have recreation somewhere,” McGinley said of Bancroft. “Communities have to grow, but in an orderly fashion.”

McGinley said plans remain in place to develop other Woodlawn properties along Concord Pike, but over an extended period of time. She said the Shoppes at Brandywine would be a litmus test of sorts to see what kind of projects would ultimately be accepted by both the community and New Castle County planners.

“The more intense development would be along the road with some residential behind,” McGinley said. “But in the end, it’s up to the County as to what they want to see there. They have very strict zoning rules.”

Defining its mission

At a public hearing for the Shoppes at Brandywine last fall, several residents decried Woodlawn for its intentions to allow any of its land to be developed at all.

With 1,970 acres of open space extending into Pennsylvania, Woodlawn has often been misperceived as an organization whose sole charge is preservation.

It is indeed a large part of their mission. In the 1980s, Woodlawn outbid a number of developers for the Ramsey Farm – a pristine 350 acres in the heart of the valley, and then passed it on to the state to become part of Brandywine Creek State Park. It also preserved the St. Joseph’s Paper Tract, 45-acres that environmental officials had identified as one of the most significant natural areas in the state.

McGinley said Woodlawn remains committed to leaving the area in the valley untouched, with its steep slopes, heavily wooded areas and viewpoints preserved for public enjoyment.

But Woodlawn is also Wilmington’s largest provider of affordable housing, with nearly 600 units renting for between $500 and $600 each month. Maintaining those units has a cost, and in order to advance that portion of their mission, leasing some of its less pristine property for development has always been a reality.

“We’re all self-funded, we do it all ourselves,” said Rodney Lambert, Woodlawn’s vice-president and treasurer. “To stop developing is not really an option for us if we’re going to continue to fund our mission.”

He said Woodlawn’s $6.5 million in annual revenue is almost completely reinvested in property maintenance or preservation efforts, or is used to retire debt from large land purchases, like the Ramsey Farm.

Councilman Robert Weiner (R-Chatham), whose district includes the bulk of Woodlawn’s land, said the public clearly has misconceptions about the Trust’s role.

“They have multiple missions, and their effort to provide affordable housing is an expensive one,” he said. “They also do a wonderful job in maintaining and preserving open space, but the reality is they’re also a development firm.”

Moving forward

Weiner called Bancroft a “futurist,” who saw the need for a mix of uses in a given community so people could walk to where they work and shop and recreate. He pointed to the communities of Sharpley, Tavistock and Eden Ridge – all developed on Woodlawn land within a quick walk of stores on Concord Pike, and trails and open space behind it.

But Weiner called the Stoltz proposal – with only 36 residential units – a commercial strip center disguised as a mixed-use plan.

“That site will be auto-dominated by external users driving there to shop,” he said. “There are not enough residents there to support all of the commercial being proposed.”

With the intersection of Beaver Valley Road, Concord Pike and Naamans Road already considered a failing intersection by traffic planers, neighbors are concerned.

Weiner said he believed Woodlawn made a mistake in leasing the land to Stoltz without retaining the right to approve the scope and design of the plan.

Landry agreed and said he hoped Woodlawn would engage the community more on future projects.

“The hands-off approach is discouraging and it’s not how Woodlawn has done things in the past,” he said. “I hope it’s not how they do things going forward.”

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