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8/26/2011
Clark is going down the wrong path for redevelopment - News Journal

Aug. 26, 2011  |  Comments Written by ROBERT WEINER www.delawareonline.com

Others have pointed out the specific errors in County Executive Paul Clark's July 26 opinion, "Redevelopment reduces sprawl and creates thousands of jobs."

I want to focus more on the Clark administration's generally misguided approach to redevelopment. Mr. Clark and I disagree about whether developers who increase density and traffic should pay impact fees or pay their fair share for necessary road improvements. We also disagree about whether the character of existing communities should be protected from new, incongruous developments with more density than the law normally allows.

Developers should get breaks from zoning laws and fees when they are solving a pre-existing problem in a community, such as blight or vacancy. Otherwise taxpayers are just subsidizing developers' businesses. These are just some of the redevelopment reform provisions I would have preferred to have seen enacted, but which Mr. Clark's administration refused to draft into the recently passed redevelopment legislation.

Mr. Clark points to job creation and avoiding development of greenfields as justification for redevelopment as he envisions it. However, jobs alone do not directly result in upgrades to already strained road intersections; they just add more traffic congestion. When traffic problems degrade a community's quality of life, eventually some of the "customers" the jobs serve opt to move elsewhere. We are then left with yet another vacant shopping center.

The only factor that should justify giving a developer a pass on paying for a fair share of road improvements is when major roadway improvements are simply not needed. In a true "redevelopment" project, this is the case, because something was already constructed on the site that has become obsolete. If the "redeveloped" use generates similar peak-hour trips , then roadway planning at the state level likely already accounted for that traffic. Two projects demonstrate the folly of continuing to avoid the reforms I advocate.

Governor's Square III was accepted by Mr. Clark's administration and processed as a redevelopment plan through the first public hearing. Nothing but a small bank had been constructed on the site. The property was in fact one of those "greenfields" Mr. Clark claimed in his July 26 editorial to care about saving. Once citizen activists forced the developer to perform a traffic impact study, it was revealed that expensive improvements are in fact needed to keep the intersection functioning. Had the project stayed a "redevelopment," the developer would not have had to pay for any of those upgrades. This was a near miss for taxpayers. My rejected proposal to preclude "redevelopment" of open spaces and also, to always require a traffic impact study for redevelopments that propose rezonings, like Governors Square III, would better prevent a future fiasco like that one.

Unbelievably, Mr. Clark's reforms also do not prevent another Barley Mill Plaza redevelopment plan, which plan has been granted redevelopment status in the absence of any blight or vacancy. Barley Mill Plaza should not be afforded special redevelopment status, which removes traffic studies and requisite traffic improvements as a precondition to rezoning approval by New Castle  County Council. Does anyone think that but for the redevelopment breaks, this shopping center would instead be built on some alternate imaginary "green field" elsewhere? Location plays too major a role in the developer's plans for that to be true.

The recent redevelopment law that council passed backed off Clark's originally proposed extension of "paper redevelopment" to expired plans that had never been built. Thank goodness. However, the taxpayer still shoulders too many burdens for "redevelopment" projects which cause traffic gridlock without at least saving a community from blight or vacancy.

Do we public servants work for the communities near these projects or for national big-box stores looking to pay lower rent because their landlord got away without accounting for traffic increases? How can Mr. Clark say his policies resulted in successful projects when we have no way of knowing whether redevelopment incentives have made those projects possible at all, or rather merely more profitable for the developer at taxpayer expense?

Mr. Clark's statement is problematic: "The county will continue to explore ways in which we can incentivize developers to modernize plans that have not yet been built." Maybe such plans would never have been built anyway because the developer misjudged the market for the proposed use. Maybe such a plan was badly designed. It is not the community's duty to underwrite a poorly conceived development plan. I expect Mr. Clark and I will have to agree to disagree on the proper scope of redevelopment as a useful economic tool.

Councilman Robert Weiner represents New Castle County's Second District.

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