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Commonwealth Group/Setting Properties purchase Brookview Apts


Commonwealth Group will join with Setting Properties to redevelop the Brookview apartments complex in Claymont into a 'traditional neighborhood design' community of single-family houses, townhouses and condominiums. The strip of retail establishments between the complex and Philadelphia Pike may also be included in the project.

Construction, which is expected to proceed in phases, is scheduled to begin during the summer of 2006 and be completed in 2012, according to a joint announcement by Commonwealth Group, New Castle County officials and Claymont Renaissance Development Corp. issued as a press statement on Aug. 3.

The statement did not include the price Commonwealth paid to purchase the 66-acre property nor provide any details of a development agreement between the firm and county government. Asking price was in the range of $30 million. The agreement, which has been in negotiation for several weeks, is believed to provide for such incentives as building densities higher than those called for in the Unified Development Code.

According to the announcement, the new development will include between 1,000 and 1,200 housing units. It said they will sell for between $160,000 and $450,000.

[CLICK HERE to read the full text of the press statement confirming the purchase of Brookview.]

Redevelopment of Brookview has long been viewed as a critical component of a community revitalization plan crafted over the course of five years by the Claymont Renaissance.

Commonwealth has publicly committed itself to fulfilling the Renaissance's 'vision'. With its planning consultant, Torti Gallas & Partners, the firm is conducting a virtually unprecedented week-long charrette to obtain 'input' from community residents and affected interests at the beginning of the design process.

The announcement confirms a report by Delaforum that completion of purchase and other negotiations were timed to provide a climax to the charrette.

As previously reported, Robert Ruggio, Commonwealth's senior vice president, told a public meeting that the purchase of the apartment complex is just the start of a multi-million investment. He held out the possibility that Commonwealth's role in Claymont redevelopment will extend beyond the Brookview project. "We looking at abandoned houses [and] property not in use in the area," he said.

"We see this expanding farther down the Pike ... even to Bellefonte," said George Lossť, president of the Claymont Community Coalition.

While players in major land-use ventures routinely claim to be tuned in to the communities that will be affected, Commonwealth has gone much further by dealing in local interest groups at the very beginning of

The Brookview complex (above) is a collection of same-looking apartment units. But in five to seven years it may be a mixed-use neighborhood in a transformed Claymont, as shown on charts (below) displayed at a planning charrette.

Robert Ruggio (upper left), Commonwealth Group senior vice president, Councilman Robert Weiner (upper right) and County Executive Christopher Coons described a redeveloped Brookview as an impossible dream about to come true.

Attenders sitting around a work table at the public meeting listen attentively as project manager Erik Aulestia explains a slide showing Brookview's relation to the planned commercial-uses area along Philadelphia Pike.

the planning process. Purpose of the charrette is to provide an opportunity for representatives of the groups and the public at large to provide the planning firms with ideas and preferences.

Charrette is a French term widely used in Europe which that has become fashionable in America as a replacement for 'brainstorming' session.

That process is used routinely in community planning efforts, but seldom if ever in connection with private development projects. "You never see a developer and community sitting down together ... to try to imagine a project," County Executive Christopher Coons said at the meeting.

"Getting Philadelphia Pike to be a good place is not something that we can do by ourselves," said Neal Payton, a principal in Silver Springs, Md.-based Torti Gallas. "We have to work together and it's going to be a long process."

"It is the first time that we as developers have taken on to bring the entire community in," Ruggio said.

Coons's appearance at the meeting and endorsement of the project amounted to a 180-degree turn in official county government policy. Coons's predecessor, Thomas Gordon, had vehemently opposed inclusion of private redevelopment of Brookview in its plans, making that a non-negotiable condition for the county's continued financial and professional-staff support of the Claymont Renaissance movement.

"We are pledged to be a full and active and fair participant" in the project, Coons declared as present policy.

He expressed a "willingness to look at our [development] code and be flexible." The issue in that regard will center on development density.

Payton said a "jumbled up" array of housing, retail outlets and public buildings is key to recapturing some of the feeling that urban communities had in the past and lost by dictating that "everything be alike, even down to the thickness of the paint, as defined by the code." Contrasting the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., with a typical suburban community, he said that the result "separated everything you did in life."

"We blew it," County Councilman Robert Weiner said with reference to past development in the Claymont area. "Auto-oriented development is something we don't like."

"Density is our friend. Density is needed to create a critical mass to attract investment," he added.

Payton said Claymont stands to serve as an example of what can happen if an older community unites behind an effort to reverse the effects of sprawl and near-total dependence on automobile transportation. "What you started five years ago isn't just a local kind of solution to a local issue," he said.

Weiner said the Claymont Renaissance prevailed in the face of considerable skepticism. "There were a lot of times when the process seemed to be working against us," he said. The movement led not only to an 'idealized build-out plan' for Claymont, but also to enactment of a county 'hometown' zoning ordinance which, among other things, gives the force of law to community-developed design standards.

In terms of design, Payton said variation in such things as building set-back can contribute of "a sense of place."

"We Americans spend thousands of dollars to visit places that have no front yards," he said, with reference to an urban tourist attraction in Portugal.

Including so-called 'affordable' housing in the mix also is a plus, he added. It contributes to "a sense of ownership in the community ... when a broad range of housing options is available," he said.

Weiner suggested use of the term 'workforce housing' in lieu of 'affordable housing.' "When you do that, it becomes acceptable," he said.

Ruggio said Commonwealth will not overlook present low-income residents of Brookview. "We will make them an integral part of this project," he said.

When it takes ownership of the existing rental complex, it will improve security and rehabilitate units in disrepair. The short-term result, he added, will probably be an increase in the number of occupied apartments.

Erik Aulestia, who will manage the project for Torti Gallas, said the plan will provide for retention of as many of the existing mature sycamore trees in Brookview as possible. There also will be "innovate methods to deal with stormwater [drainage]," he said.

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