Gregory Pettinaro made a business decision in 1986 that few other businessmen would have even considered then but which he believed, and subsequent events have proven, was a no-brainer. At his behest, Pettinaro Enterprises, the family business of which he is a principal, bought 80 acres of long-abandoned shipyard.

"Everybody [else] was afraid of it," he said. "What I saw was an industrial property with no environmental problems, partly in the city [with city services] and having easy access to I[nterstate]-95."

Pettinaro bought and bided his time while the investment matured. Twenty years later, folks who didn't even know Dravo Corp. existed and built some of the ships that helped fight World War II, and still can't properly pronounce the defunct company's name, are flocking to the Christina Riverfront for outlet shopping, a ballgame, an arts exhibit, a cocktail at a trendy watering hole, a stroll along a scenic path, or a combination of those attractions.

Except for Daniel S. Frawley Stadium, subsidiaries of Pettinaro Enterprises still own the properties and the company is looking to even more development -- a third section of stores, a suites-type hotel and an office building in a former warehouse.

A fluke?

Hardly.

Pettinaro Enterprises in the early 1990s picked up Paladin Club northeast of Wilmington at a bankruptcy sale and has more than made a go of the visionary plan the former owner had for the run-down former Clifton Park Apartments complex.

Gregory Pettinaro

More than 500 condominium units have now been sold and reconstruction of remaining empty buildings into 100 or so more continues. The project turned profitable about two years ago, Gregory Pettinaro said.

In that case, he explained, the possibility that the company could emulate its success in converting the former Monroe

Park Apartments into Greenville Place was obvious to insiders. Developer Arthur Schlessenger failed not because he didn't have a good idea but because he and his Tall Trees Associates partnership did not have the capital to make it work, Pettinaro said.

Because Pettinaro Enterprises is a family corporation, it does not disclose specifics, but Gregory Pettinaro said its ventures are all financed internally. And, more to the point, they are undertaken with the idea of making money.

Novel as its approach might have sounded just a couple of years ago, it is now considered by a still small but growing and influential cadre as definitely last century thinking. Urban and suburban sprawl are out and 'smart growth' is in. No less an authority than the National Geographic Society, in a recent journal article, characterized the new approach to redevelopment with the

Paladin Club (top) and Riverfront Shops are two of Pettinaro Enterprises' successful redevelopment ventures.

potential to create a lifestyle on something of the scale that the post-World War II baby boom did.

Both Delaware and New Castle County are moving ahead with legislation to promote what Governor Ruth Ann Minner has labeled a 'livable' locale.

Pettinaro is a good deal less lyrical talking about it. "Just say we like redevelopment. We think there is a lot of value in redeveloping when compared to building something new," he told Delaforum.

The Riverfront project is a good case in point. Symbolically that is expressed in the fact that rusted industrial cranes were left in place and painted  bright colors to create improbable but highly imaginative landmarks. They may not attract visitors to the site, but they give a distinct identity to where they are when they go.

On the human level, he points out that Paladin Club's present attraction -- for "singles, mingles and empty nesters" -- is the very thing that many feel doomed Clifton Park -- its location. The easy highway commutes to Wilmington and Philadelphia, he said, will be even better when and if an Edgemoor train station comes to be. As Delaforum previously reported, Fox Point Association is advocating re-establishing a stop on the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority's R-2 rail line.

That is not to say that redevelopment works if left to its own devices. At Paladin, there are still things to be done relative to the future of the former Edgemoor Elementary School building on the site and neighboring Merchants Square, which Pettinaro Enterprises does not own.

While his company is clearly in the forefront of the 'smart growth' movement hereabouts, Pettinaro said there is one major misconception that has to be put aside before it catches hold with others in the building and development business. Government subsidiary, he said, is not a sine qua non to the process.

"Don't get me wrong, I would gladly take government money or government help if any of it was available. But what I'm saying is that it's not necessary. Redevelopment can be a good investment in itself," he said.

He agreed, however, that a project like the Christiana Riverfront would not have moved as quickly and as well as it has without the support of the quasipublic Riverfront Development Corp. and publicly-financed projects like the Riverfront Walk and the planned development of a large nature preserve in the wetland just south of the properties.

What probably never will be authoritatively determined is what influence the rebirth of the Wilmington Blue Rocks baseball team had on it. "That got it started and it needed something to get it started. But who can tell if the Riverfront would not have worked without [Daniel S.] Frawley Stadium or whether the ball club might have died if there was nothing else down there," Pettinaro said. "All I can say is that every bit helps."

Asked if there might be a sequel to that 1986 decision in the making, he replied, "Nothing I want to talk about right now."

Posted on August 3, 2001

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