August 16, 2002

Philadelphia Pike through Claymont and, perhaps, beyond would be rebuilt as a parkway with a median wide enough to support a canopy of shade trees under the most elaborate of three 'conceptual designs' presented to community leaders by Delaware Department of Transportation.

Public unveiling of the proposals on Aug. 15 came about a year after DelDOT agreed to tie a planned project to improve safety along the highway into the intended Claymont Renaissance, a grassroots effort to upgrade the area, beginning with substantial redevelopment along a five-block portion of the heavily traveled road.

"They were [initially] talking just about ways to make it safer for traffic to speed through," said County Councilman Robert Weiner who noted that the concepts developed after that idea was soundly rejected mesh well with what the Renaissance's 'visionary process' has defined as the future direction for the unincorporated community.

While attenders at the meeting were generally supportive, questions during the presentation indicated there will be considerable changes to the suggested scenarios, much mixing and matching of its elements and additional alternatives proposed. DelDOT planner Bruce Allen agreed that will be an acceptable route to developing a final plan and announced formation of an advisory panel to iron out the details.

"Right now, everything is on the table," he said.

Reception that DelDOT received was in sharp contrast to a strong adverse reaction which greeted an effort by officials of McDonald's Corp. to muster support for a proposal to literally bring  'the golden arches' to the intersection of Philadelphia Pike and Harvey Road. While agreeing that the now company-managed fast-food eatery there needs considerable improvement, neither the Renaissance group nor those at a well-attended meeting of the Claymont Community Coalition which followed were buying into the notion that supposed 1950s nostalgia qualifies as historic restoration.

"We don't want that ugly building {and] hopefully people will not [patronize] McDonald's if it happens," declared Coalition president George Lossť.

"We want to get away from the image of being all fast food and gas stations," said Martha Schiek, president of the Claymont Historical Society. She suggested a relatively stately brick building and showed the group photographs of a McDonald's of that design in Crisfield, Md.

Michael Carr, McDonald's project manager, agreed to report the objections to corporate higher-ups. However, he described the idea of new outlets resembling the walk-up hamburger stands  -- accented by tall bright yellow arches on both sides of the red-and-white structure --  which launched the company and its dining style a half-century ago has proven to be a popular marketing ploy in what is now a highly competitive business. So far, there are about a dozen around the country, he said.

All three Philadelphia Pike designs presented by Christine Wells, a planner with Whitman, Requardt & Associates, a Baltimore-based DelDOT consultant, featured four 11-feet-wide traffic lanes instead of the present 12-foot ones, a bicycle lane and shoulders on both sides and curbed sidewalks running from Perkins Run, a stream which separates Claymont from Holly Oak, to the interchange with Interstate 495 just south of Knollwood. There would be pedestrian crosswalks at major intersections, fairly free access to bordering properties and 12 sheltered transit bus stops.

Two of the designs include median strips for all but the block between Manor Avenue and Wilshire Road, which is lined with business establishments. A limited amount of curbside parking is provided in those plans. The difference is that a 16-feet-wide slightly elevated and landscaped  median could be fitted into the present 80-foot right-of-way while the broader one, 22 feet wide, would require the state to take some property although probably not any buildings.

The other option calls for providing an additional highway lane for making left turns, 14 feet wide and usable by both north- and southbound traffic, along the entire length. Wells noted that would make the pike appear wider than it presently does and probably encourage faster speeds as drivers would also use the center lane for passing.

Thomas Comitta, the Renaissance's urban planner, suggested that a fourth option, exchanging some of the wider median for wider sidewalks, be considered. Noting that the affected stretch of road -- 1.75 miles -- is considerably longer than was involved in renewal projects on which he worked in places like New Hope, Pa., and Annapolis, Md., he said that a logical way to proceed would be to apply different or modified designs in sections.

Weiner suggested that the design or designs eventually agreed upon for Claymont should also be considered for Philadelphia Pike south of Perkins Run, the generally accepted southern 'boundary' of Claymont, to as far as Penny Hill and the Wilmington city line.

Allen told Delaforum that he was unable to give even general cost estimates for the options and declined at the meeting to venture a guess about how long the project will take. Weiner indicated the Renaissance would likethe highway project completed in two years and the first phase of development, involving the Brookview Apartments area, in five years.

Allen said that the initial concepts will be presented to the newly formed advisory committee -- DelDOT calls such panels established for its major projects 'working groups' -- in September and at a public hearing in October. Weiner urged him to structure the hearing in the traditional way, with a presentation and open discussion instead of the one-on-one offering of comments to agency representatives which DelDOT has used with several major recent projects. Wells noted that advisory committee meetings are open to the public.

In a separate context, Weiner told the meeting that "quiet dialogue [seeking] to work out a deal economically" is going on between developer Stuever Brothers, Eccles & Rouse and the owners of Brookview. Steuver Brothers is involved with redevelopment of the Ships Tavern area of downtown Wilmington. There also is a potential purchaser of property interested in the proposed development area, Weiner said. He declined to identify either the purchaser or the property.

Thomas Mallon, director of development for Archmere Academy, told the group that that private school is in the process of drafting a master plan for its campus, which it expects to have completed by December. He said the school is interested in "coordinating with the Renaissance" as is willing to commit to such things as relocating its fence and maintaining the highway medians. Archmere is directly across Philadelphia Pike from Brookview.

The McDonald Corp. plan revives a rebuilding proposal rejected in 2000 by the New Castle County Board of Adjustment, resubmitting it under the county's recently enacted economic redevelopment ordinance. The law now permits Planning Board approval of proposals to improve older properties short of meeting current Unified Development Code standards. The Board of Adjustment rejected the numerous variances the original proposal would have required. The new system measures the value of upgrades based on cumulative percentage improvements toward meeting standards.

The minimum improvement required is 400 percentage points; Carr told the Coalition that McDonald's proposal claims 1,500 percentage points.

The existing restaurant building would be torn down and replaced by one closer to the highway, with the vehicular traffic flow largely to the side and rear of the property. There would be relatively extensive landscaping and the placing of wider buffer areas separating it from the Lackey mansion, an historic structure, which sits to the rear .

Besides the esthetics of a 1950s, there was considerable discussion at the Coalition meeting about the alleged strewing of trash around the property and the noise of the speaker system for taking orders from drive-up customers. Carr said new management of the outlet is addressing both issues.

After several of the 40 people attending the meeting voiced objection, one -- who refused to identify himself beyond saying that he lives nearby -- said the proposed appearance of the establishment "would be a lot better than what's there now [and] could grow on us."

Weiner cautioned the Coalition not to overlook the fact that the redevelopment ordinance was adopted -- with the Coalition actively supporting it -- in an effort to encourage improvement of existing properties. The community "has given [property owners] the right to make improvements, even if they don't meet the code; you don't have the right to demand they build an historic structure," he said. "They're exercising a right that we, the community, gave them."

"We haven't given them the right to force on us a building we don't want," Lossť countered

Weiner replied that he, too, favors a different style building and asked Carr if that were possible. "That's an issue that's beyond me," Carr said, explaining that unidentified superiors in the company will have to make it.

The plan is scheduled to go before a Planning Board public hearing on Sept. 3. Asked if the company's timetable for the project would allow time for a basic change beyond that, Carr, who is based in McDonald's regional office in Philadelphia, replied that his assignment was to have the present restaurant replaced by September. He is now looking for an opening by December, he said.

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