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Weiner initiates Commonwealth's involvement in Claymont Renaissance


When it's finished seven years or so hence, they'll probably say it was designed by committee. But if Bob Ruggio, Bob Weiner and a veritable phalanx of other folk have anything to say about it, Brookview Two' won't look like what popular wisdom holds something designed by committee looks like.

More than 100 people crowded into a Claymont Community Center conference room on a sultry afternoon to get a first look at a conceptual plan for the redeveloped neighborhood west of Philadelphia Pike. No one expressed any objections to what they saw.

The unveiling could be regarded as a significant milestone in the history of Claymont, a community which traces its roots to Naamans, a 17th Century village, which itself was set on a site where the Lenni-Lenape and probably earlier Indian tribes dwelt. A less elongated view of history defines the occasion as the culmination of more than five years of determined effort by participants in the Claymont Renaissance movement.

"What brought us here was a phone call from Bob Weiner," said Ruggio, senior vice president of Commonwealth Group. That happened more than two years ago and was followed by a series of calls from the councilman promoting the Renaissance and Brookview's role in it. "We listened to him; we believed in it," Ruggio added, referring to the potential of successful redevelopment.

Neal Payton, a principal in Torti Gallas & Partners, a planning firm specializing in urban development, described the plan as something of a throwback. "It's like we used to build before World War Two," he said, referring to Union Park Gardens in southwest Wilmington and Overlook Colony in Claymont as extant examples of how neighborhoods looked before "we became tethered to our cars."

Literally completed about an hour before the mid-afternoon meeting on Aug. 5, the drawing was a synthesis of three earlier schemes developed during a week-long charrette, or workshop, attended at various times by representatives of every entity having any sort of interest in the redevelopment project.

Neal Payton (above) uses slides to illustrate some of the design concepts in the Brookview plan. Robert Ruggio (below) discusses features of the plan.

Its highlights:

• Exactly 1,200 units in a mixture of townhouses, duplexes, condominium and apartment buildings, retail stores and professional offices. There are no single-family detached houses in the plan.

• Entrances off Philadelphia Pike at Manor Avenue and directly opposite the driveway to the Patio, the original building on the Archmere Academy campus. Several additional entrances off Darley Road and from Ashbourne Hills are included. There could be a possible connection to Seminole Avenue if property for one is acquired.

• Retail establishments fronting on Philadelphia Pike and extending a short distance into Brookview. Some of those buildings would include apartments above ground-level shops.

• An extended Manor Avenue which widens into a town square or village green with a pool and small community building. It also would possibly be the site for the historic Adolph Wertm¨¹ller house which would be moved from its present location on the Citi Steel plant property.

• A parkway, similar to Bancroft Parkway in Wilmington, which connects to Green Street and crosses the neighborhood perpendicular to Manor Avenue.

• A four-acre crescent-shaped park at the northern end of the parkway. That actually would be a created wetland combing a presently obscured tributary of Naamans Creek with a proposed stormwater management system.

• A relatively large condominium building in Woodshaven-Kruse Park.

• No point in Brookview more than a five-minute walk from any other point and the neighborhood itself within easy walking distance of the commuter rail station and other Claymont destinations.

Being able to construct a condominium in the park would require swapping land with county government in a way that would retain the total amount of common open space and parkland while giving the existing park a more open 'looked over' appearance.

Some participatory or other arrangement would have to be made with owners of two tracts of commercial properties fronting on Philadelphia Pike. That area is included in the plan although Commonwealth does not own those properties. However, Payton said, the other property owners "want to be involved."

As previously reported, Commonwealth is to redevelop 'Brookview Two' in a joint venture with Setting Properties. The New Castle County-based development firms have a combined 35 years of experience in a variety of development projects in the area, Ruggio said.

'Brookview Two', he said, is a working title. The name to be given the completed project will be determined, possibly by a public contest, later.

The Brookview purchase was referred to at the meeting as a $32.5 million investment. Ruggio indicated earlier that the firm may extend its involvement in the Claymont area beyond that project.

Payton said bringing the plan to fruition will require a significant amount of preliminary spade work, including obtaining enactment of state and county legislation. "A lot of things in [the plan] are illegal. ... It's illegal to make a Main Street in Delaware," he said.

For starters, he added, a complete reworking of Delaware Department of Transportation's plan for safety-related improvements to Philadelphia Pike will be required. "DelDOT is just not there yet. ... Its [plan] is designed for cars, not pedestrians. We want to make people actually enjoy being on Philadelphia Pike," he said. Among other things, the highway should be redesigned to provide much wider sidewalks, parallel parking, trees and traffic-slowing measures, he added.

He said that Connecticut Avenue in Washington, near his home, is a thoroughfare "with three times as much traffic as Philadelphia Pike" where such design techniques are in place and working.

Contrary to impressions as the result of several references at Claymont Renaissance and Design Review Advisory Council meetings to negotiation-like discussions, county government apparently did not enter into what previously had been described as a 'development agreement' prior to Commonwealth's completion of the purchase of Brookview.

County spokeswoman Allison Levine told Delaforum that "there are no agreements" and said that nothing of that sort will happen before an exploratory development plan is filed with the Department of Land Use.

Weiner told Delaforum that county officials and Commonwealth are in agreement on such things as inclusion of so-called 'affordable' housing in the plan, provisions for relocating present low-income residents, availability of sanitary-sewer capacity, and required deviations from provisions of the Unified Development Code regarding such things as density and building set-backs.

But, he confirmed, there are no written agreements. "Everything at this point is by a handshake -- on good faith," he said.

Ruggio has said there will be 'affordable' housing in the mix. In response to a question at the meeting, he said it has not yet been determined how much nor has it been decided what the ratio of rental properties to those offered for sale will be.

He said his firm will set up a 'housing office' in Brookview and work with residents after determining their preferences to remain in the redeveloped neighborhood or relocate elsewhere. He said it will be sometime between 24 and 36 months before any physical relocation will be necessary.

County Executive Christopher Coons, in brief remarks at the meeting, reiterated his support for the project and pledged cooperation. "We've got a lot of details to work out. There will be some rough spots," he said. Ultimately, however, the preliminary in-public planning process which led to the plan's unveiling was the first step on the way to "a stronger, safer, more livable community," he said.

It probably will fall to Councilman John Cartier, in whose district Brookview is located, to take the first governmental step -- introduction of an ordinance to include the tract in the abutting 'hometown' zoning district.

He told the meeting that he is in full support of "this profound public-private partnership ... which opens the door to the future."

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