News

February 13, 2003

After hearing enthusiastic endorsements from a phalanx of prominent people in both the public and private sectors, the New Castle County Historic Review Board voted unanimously to allow the former Delaware Oldsmobile showroom and repair shop on Governor Printz Boulevard to be torn down. It also signed off on Bank One Corp.'s development plans for that site and on the McMullen farm at Bear.

Those actions on Feb. 12 assure that the Chicago-based bank and financial services company will be able to build a pair of communications and data centers. The project is said to involve an investment of more than three quarters of a billion dollars and, by that measure, is the largest single economic development ever undertaken in Delaware.

The approvals came just shy of a month after state officials first disclosed the proposal to the public, although the deal had been in the works for several months. Secretary of Transportation Nathan Hayward acknowledged that he had greased the skids by giving the review board a 'heads-up' and the county Department of Land Use approved the bank's preliminary development application a few days before the public announcement.

As Delaforum previously reported, the Historic Review Board stood as the possible source of the only  plausible hitch to the project's materializing. Its immediate approval was deemed necessary because the bank said it had to know quickly if the welcome mat was out here so it could build the facilities in time to meet an August, 2005, deadline. They will take a year to construct, at a cost of $500,000, and another to ouitfit with sophisticated equipment valued at another $300,000.

The review board can delay issuance of a demolition permit for up to nine months while it ponders the historical ramifications of granting one. In most cases where there is any degree of public interest, it employs that authority.

In what came as close as any official objection voiced at the hearing, review board member Thomas Crumpler asked early on, "Why does it have to be fast-tracked?" Although he referred to "the heavy-

handed pressure [put] on us," he immediately said he intended to vote in favor of granting the demolition permit. He not only did so, but he also offered the resolution upon which the review board acted.

Hayward, who has acted as point man for the project on behalf of Governor Ruth Ann Minner, said that they had been told that Bank One would look elsewhere if confronted with the possibility of uncertainty or delay

here. "They have three [alternatives], in Illinois, Indiana and Texas, eager and ready to go," he said.

Referring to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, he added that "Mayor [Richard] Daley is clearly unhappy that they're not building in their home city."

Hayward indicated that rejecting the bank's bid would

Tiles depicting items associated with the automobile business are part of the decorative façade of the former Delaware Oldsmobile showroom. They will be preserved under a plan approved by the Historic Review Board.

jeopardize the 2,500 jobs it now provides here, largely as a result of its having bought financially troubled First U.S.A. Bank. The data centers will each employ about 50 workers.

Moreover, he added, failure to allow the project to go forward would do "irreparable harm" to Delaware's business-friendly reputation.

As things now stand, the bank's timetable appears likely to be met. Charles Baker, general manager of the land use department, previously told Delaforum that the rest of the approval process can easily be completed in time to allow for an August, 2003, start of construction.

Because it is classified as a major development plan, the Governor Printz Boulevard part of the project requires County Council approval. Observers believe that is a certainty. The Bear part is listed as a minor resubdivision, which does not need Council approval. First U.S.A. Bank received county approval in 1999 to build two office buildings on part of that tract.

Councilman Penrose Hollins, in whose district the Governor Printz Boulevard site is located, endorsed the project at the hearing. He said it will have "a positive impact" on both northeast Wilmington and the Edgemoor-Fox Point area north of the city. An arrangement by which Delaware Department of Transportation will assure that art deco tiles and other architectural features of the façade of the automobile showroom will be saved "preserves our history but, at the same time, protects our future," he said.

William Montgomery, administrative assistant to Wilmington Mayor James Baker, said the city administration will sell the property to Bank One as part of a continuing effort to secure additional revenue for the city. Although situated beyond its border, the city bought the property, while James Sills was mayor, to be  the location for a recreational complex. "We'll probably take a loss [on the sale], but will do it for the good of the area and of the state," Montgomery said.

Jonathan Husband, president of the Fox Point Association, said Bank One "will provide an economic stimulus for the area." Giving up the Delaware Olds building to permit it to do so will have the effect of permitting "us to save our other historic resources."

The unusual DelDOT arrangement came as an acknowledgement that, although empty and all but abandoned for a decade, the Delaware Olds building has at least some historic significance. The state agency has hired Frank McKelvey, a professional preservationist, to remove the tiles and other architectural feature. It has agreed to store and safeguard them "in perpetuity" or until the community can come up with a plan for reusing them, probably as a decorative feature in a park or other public place. In endorsing the plan, the Fox Point Association, a civic organization, indicated it favors Fox Point State Park, believed soon to enter the second phase of development, as a location.

Sherry Freebery, New Castle County's chief administrative officer, told the hearing that county government is willing to provide an immeidate home for the tiles by incorporating them into a feature accessible to the public in Rockwood, Talley-Day or other county park in Brandywine Hundred. "Give the word and we will bring the money [to do so] to the table," she said. Bank One has said that it cannot adapt the building, including the tiles, to its needs and that, in any event, security considerations would prevent the general public from seeing them if it did.

Mike Schwartz, owner of Mike's Famous Harley-Davidson, a motorcycle dealer, said he would be happy to use the tiles or other façade features in a second showroom building he plans to build at his site on the approach to the Delaware Memorial Bridge. The existing building an adaptation of a former Howard Johnson motel and contains material from other historic sites, he said.

Schwartz invoked the memory of Bill Luke, a prominent midcentury Wilmington businessman who owned Delaware Olds and had ambitions to be a race driver, as "a man of vision." Luke commissioned the tiles to depict items associated with automobiles of his time as a way of expressing his feeling for the industry. "I have the same kind of vision today," Schwartz said.

Hayward said that, apart from the tiles and surrounding art work, the Delaware Olds building "came right out of a G.M. (General Motors) catalog" of showroom designs for its dealers. McKelvey testified that it has nothing to distinguish it from hundreds of others designed "for curb appeal" with large windows. It was "out of date by at least 12 years" when it was built in 1949, he said.

Becky Shepherd, of Preservation Delaware, said that organization is "willing to forgive you" for the loss of the Delaware Olds building. Gail Van Gilder, of Delaware Greenways, described the Bank One project as "the kind of development we've been trying to bring to the community." Beverly Baxter, executive director of the Committee of 100, a business organization, said it is "a wonderful example of a marriage of economic development and historic preservation, which we don't see very often."

Crumpler's resolution granting the demolition permit  is conditioned on the tiles being saved and DelDOT's following through on its offer to preserve them. Hayward said that is no problem and that financing to do so is already encumbered.

His and the department's involvement, he said, is part of a new approach at both the federal and state levels involving "transportation enhancement." As founder of the Delaware Economic Development Office in 1980, he has retained a personal interest in furthering development causes, he told the review board. At the hearing, he operated the computer to give a Power Point presentation, which included photographs that he and a DelDOT photographer had "tramped through the snow" to obtain.

Crumpler said his resolution was not based on development considerations but reflected an historic preservation approach. "It's the best of a bad situation," he said. "The [showroom] building is going nowhere fast. If this plan hadn't come along, the tiles would be destroyed by vandalism and abandonment."

While consideration of the Delaware Olds part of the project occupied most of the two-and-a-half hour hearing, the Bear part raised a similar point.

Responding to Hayward's illustrated description of a grossly vandalized farmhouse, barn and other buildings on the McMullen farm, all of which are nearly destroyed, review board chairman John Shields lit into First U.S.A. "Stewardship of First U.S.A. has been pitiful. They [sic] failed to protect these buildings. They were left to ruin by someone who claims to be community [supportive]," he said. The buildings, he said, were in good condition when the review board acted upon First U.S.A. plans for the site in 1999.

The one-time dairy farm, off Delaware Route 1 just north of the Governor's Square Shopping Center, was owned by Richard McMullen, governor of Delaware between 1937 and 1941.

The present plan calls for the state to acquire about half of  the part of the 152-acre site that Bank One does not need for its 320,000 square foot data center and develop part of it as a park. The state will help Bank One market the rest of the property for commercial development with the state sharing in the profit from that sale. DelDOT also will improve Christiana Road north of Pulaski Highway to serve the complex.

Legislation authorizing that plan, as well as DelDOT involvement with the Delaware Olds site, was enacted by the House of Representatives on Jan. 30, the last day before the General Assembly's current budget-writing recess, having been passed the previous day by the Senate. Both votes were unanimous. The money will come from the state's capital program, but no amount is specified in the legislation.

Hayward said the intent is to "attract a flagship employer" to the site. He did not indicate whether his department or the economic development office has any immediate prospects for doing so.

Although he said the farmhouse and other buildings are "completely trashed," Hayward agreed to a stipulation that DelDOT safeguard what is left. The buildings are on the part of the tract slated for commercial development and their ultimate disposition will be determined at the time a development plan is submitted for that area.

© 2003. All rights reserved.

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