August 28, 2002

For a while it looked as if county lawmakers might have found a way to fulfill the biblical prophecy about the lion and the lamb lying together in perfect harmony. But it now appears that the verdant pastures are still a ways off.

Unless positions soften, the Planning Board's public hearing on Sept.3 to consider an application by McDonald's Corp. to replace its restaurant at Philadelphia Pike and Harvey Road in Claymont will be an adversarial proceeding with the prospective developer and at least some community activists clashing.

So what else is new? We all know that rezonings, variances and subdivision plans have long been a matter of us versus them and vice versa.

But this was supposed to be different.

The McDonald's application is only the third under the redevelopment ordinance enacted early this year to encourage upgrading older properties by bypassing the cumbersome and often expensive process of obtaining Board of Adjustment variances from code requirements. Community opposition often is a significant cause for the complexity.

There was strong community opposition in 2000 when McDonald's sought variances to replace the Claymont outlet. The Board of Adjustment denied that application.

Delaforum has learned that both of the first two redevelopment ordinance proposals -- both of which had community endorsement -- have received favorable rulings from the county Department of Land Use and are now in the final stages of plan approval. They are a medical imaging building in Talleyville and a liquor store in Southwood Farms. A fourth proposal, involving a property in Richardson Park, is scheduled to go before the Planning Board in October.

While it was before County Council, the redevelopment ordinance was touted as a proverbial 'best of both worlds' proposition. Property owners could upgrade older buildings, improving their utility and economic value, without having to meet the requirements of the Unified Development Code, which are far more stringent than the standards that were in place when the property was first developed. Communities would reap the benefit of having eyesores removed or at least improved and avoiding having to cope with abandoned or underused properties.

The process, as explained then, was that the developer, civic association and others who had a stake in the outcome would reason together, establish priorities about desirable improvements and come up with  mutually acceptable redevelopment plan. After a public airing before the Planning Board, professionals in the Department of Land Use would examine the agreement to see if it would likely result in sufficient betterment to justify waiving full compliance with the code.

Basic tool for determining how much is enough is a formula incorporated into the ordinance which measures how close the various improvements -- in regard to such things as setbacks, buffer zones, parking, landscaping, stormwater management and the like -- come to meeting current standards. Some of the calculations are objective -- the number of parking spaces, for instance. Others are necessarily subjective. Either way, the percentages are then totaled. The magic number, which establishes the threshold for approval, is 400 percentage points. Since no category can total more than 100%, the formula requires improvements in at least four of them.

Using the ordinance's euphemistic terminology, developers can claim their plans represent impressively high degrees of improvement. McDonald's, for instance, said it is offering at least a 1,500% improvement at the Claymont site.

No one is disputing the fact that the plan will produce major improvement there and some area residents probably would agree that it will be 15 times better.

The rub, however, is that improvement comes with what some regard as an undesirable element. McDonald's wants to put up a new restaurant built to look like the ones with which the company was launched in the 1950s. It would be complete with  'golden arches' on both sides of the building. That is intended as a marketing ploy in the highly competitive fast-food business, project manager Michael Carr explained.

Trouble is, according to some critics, the arches and the rest of the brilliant red-and-white decor will clash with the Claymont Renaissance. The Renaissance movement envisions rejuvenating the unincorporated community by, among other things, giving it an historic appearance. Fifties fast food nostalgia is not compatible with the image being sought, it is argued.

George Loss, president of the Claymont Community Coalition said flat-out at a recent meeting, "We don't want that ugly building."

His remark has set the pace and become a sort of rallying cry. All but one of the dozen or so attenders who spoke at the meeting objected to the plan. Since then, however, there have been indications in some quarters that the objections may not be as strongly felt nor as widespread as that would indicate. There also reputedly is an effort underway to tone them down.

One source said that several people active in the community have indicated they are willing to accept the arches in return for a major national company's willingness to make a significant and visible investment in the community. The McDonald's outlet is company-owned, not a franchise.

Their reasoning is that the initial Renaissance improvements are intended for father north on Philadelphia Pike and will take at least five years to bring about. As the improvements move southward in later years, McDonald's marketeers' passion for the arches is likely to have waned and the company would be receptive to blending in with area improvements.

Closer at hand, Joseph Elad, who lives in the historic Laffey House, which sits behind McDonald's, said that "except for the design of the building, everything they want to do is an improvement."

"In an ideal world, we (he and his wife, Faith) would like to see them [tear down] the building and move across the street," he said. "We know that is not going to happen and [that] they have a legal right to develop where they are. They could get a lot of good will [by changing] the specific design of the [new] building," he said.

Carr said that a decision on that would have to come from someone higher up on the corporate ladder than he. He reportedly has advised Claymont leaders that the company no longer is interested in relocating to the former Brosius-Eliason property cattycorner to the restaurant, on which it previously had a purchase option. That site has been proposed as the site for a large Wawa convenience store and gasoline station -- which also has evoked community opposition.

It generally is agreed that esthetics and building design are outside the scope of land-use regulation. With that in mine, some see endorsement of the overall plan as a bargaining chip to secure a change in the planned design.

Beyond that, County Councilman Robert Weiner, who represents the Claymont area and was one of the sponsors of the redevelopment ordinance, said that reasonable compromise is in order. The law seeks to balance the interests of communities and developers. In the McDonald's case, it "encouraged the applicant to initiate positive changes," he said. "Redevelopment is better than the alternative of allowing the [property] to continue to deteriorate."

Merits of the situation aside, there have been questions raised about whether the McDonald's approach squares with the process envisioned when the ordinance was enacted. Carr told the coalition meeting that the company elected to re-apply under the new law after that was suggested during preliminary conversations with the land use department.

The coalition meeting, which was held after the application was on the Planning Board's hearing agenda, was the first presentation of the plan to the community. Carr presented it as a completed proposal in the form in which it would go before the board, not as the basis for negotiation with community leaders or others. He did, however, agree to report what was said at the meeting to his corporate superiors.

Philip Lavelle, zoning chairman for the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, said that does not jibe with his understanding of how the law is supposed to work. "There's a difference between working out [a plan] that both sides can agree on and being asked to agree to something [presented] to you," he said.

In the Talleyville case, he said, the applicant consulted with community organizations and nearby property owners, while developing its plan.

The redevelopment ordinance, he said, gives considerable descretion to the land use department and is vague on how its mutual-benefits objective can be met in actual practice. "It sound good, but we can't be sure how it's really supposed to work."

The umbrella civic council's executive committee has adopted an as-yet-unpublicized resolution to support the Claymont Coalition in the McDonald's case.

Asked by Delaforum for his opinion of whether the redevelopment ordinance is working as intended, Victor Singer, chairman of the Planning Board, would only say, "Wait and see."

2002. All rights reserved.

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