Urban center nears construction in Delaware

For five years public and private interests have sought to redevelop a commercial strip in New Castle County, Delaware, into a walkable village center. These efforts are bearing fruit as a 66-acre medium-density urban center called Brookview nears groundbreaking in the unincorporated town of Claymont along Philadelphia Pike.

Brookview would be the first project of its type and scale in either Delaware or the Philadelphia area. A private project by two Wilmington developers who are new to New Urbanism, Brookview would not have come about without the efforts of New Castle County and a coalition of public-private interests under the name Claymont Renaissance.

Claymont has suffered physically from an abundance of strip commercial development since the 1960s, especially on Philadelphia Pike. Thomas Comitta Associates of West Chester, Pennsylvania, created a vision in 2001 to improve the built environment along the arterial, including an urban design for an urban center. The Claymont Renaissance Redevelopment Corporation was founded in 2004 with funding from the county, state, federal government, and private sources.

A zoning overlay, called a Hometown Overlay District, was approved by the county to encourage New Urbanism in Claymont. One parcel containing 440 run-down apartment units — the same site that would eventually be planned as Brookview — was initially excluded from that zoning district. County officials, especially councilman Robert Weiner, used a potential inclusion in the overlay zone — along with a boost in density that would come with the zoning change — to entice developers to purchase the property from the landlord, Don Robitzer of The Commonwealth Group, one of the developers, told New Urban News.

Seven or eight regional developers vied to purchase the site, according to Robitzer. Commonwealth and its partner, Setting Properties, purchased it for $33 million in 2005, Robitzer says. Comitta notes that the site was valued at $18 million prior to the zoning change. Prior to purchase, the developers met with county officials for assurances on the rezoning and to find out precisely what it would mean. “It was a leap of faith,” Robitzer says, adding that “we had a high level of confidence that we could achieve our goals.”

The developers hired Torti Gallas & Partners of Silver Spring, Maryland, to conduct a charrette in August 2005. Brookview is laid out on 14 urban blocks. The project is planned mostly as attached buildings of three to four stories, with tight build-to lines and carefully prescribed architectural details such as terminated vistas and corner towers. It includes 1,200 units and 35,000 square feet of first floor commercial space, mostly on a main street block that branches off of Philadelphia Pike. Twenty percent of the units will consist of affordable housing — half of those off-site. The affordable housing will look the same as the market-rate housing, Robitzer says.

The developers signed a land use agreement with the county in May 2006, and expect to get zoning approval in the near future. The zoning is a form-based code tailored to the site by Torti Gallas. Demolition of the apartments is expected in the fall, with construction beginning in 2007, Comitta says. About a third of the apartments are occupied and the developers are helping with relocation of tenants, Comitta says.

Meanwhile, the Hometown overlay is beginning to have an impact on the arterial. A two-story Dunkin’ Donuts has been built to the sidewalk, with parking in back and offices on the second floor — the company’s only multistory building in North America, Comitta says. A Wawa convenience store/gas station and a McDonald’s have also been built since the overlay went into effect. Neither of those was willing to build to the sidewalk — but both built brick walls at the sidewalk and used brick construction for their buildings. These changes have made a difference, Comitta says, and a nearby town that is getting a McDonald’s is asking for a building similar to Claymont’s. Although these small victories are making a difference, Comitta believes that the transformation of Philadelphia Pike will take 20 years. ��