November 22, 2002

Claymont Renaissance is poised to move into a third, probably crucial, phase as its steering committee decided to try to interest one or more developers in transforming the Brookview Apartments complex into an attractive 'town center' that will spur further redevelopment.

"Unless we can attract someone who is willing to invest large sums of money ... it is all hot air," town planner Thomas Comitta told a committee meeting on Nov. 21. He added that "it may be necessary to incentivize the development process," but did not elaborate on what that might entail.

"We have to seek out a 'new urbanist' developer who sees the possibilities in our 'idealized buildout' plan as soon as possible," said New Castle County Councilman Robert Weiner.

"We have to do something. We can't go along just planning," George Lossé, president of the Claymont Community Coalition, said.

There has been some previous approaches -- particularly to Steuver Brothers, Eccles & Rouse, a Baltimore-based firm which has a national reputation for urban rebirth projects and  is currently redeveloping the Ship Tavern District on Market Street is downtown Wilmington. But the consensus of the meeting was that now is a propitious time for an all-out effort to merge the soon-to-be-completed Delaware Department of Transportation plans for Philadelphia Pike with the Renaissance's conceptual plan.

The movement was begun nearly two years ago as a joint project of the Claymont Coalition, Claymont Business Owners Association and the Claymont Historical Society. With Weiner acting as a sort of godfather, it acquired 'seed money' from County Executive Tom Gordon. Corporate and other donations enabled it to hire Thomas Comitta Associates, of West Chester, Pa., to produce the conceptual plan.

Having had one 'reality check' in the form of a marketing study, the third step is to put its plan for the stretch along the west side of the pike between Seminole Avenue and Darley Road before someone whose business is development, Comitta said.

Even as that consensus was being elicited from attenders at the meeting, they heard that a small-scale version of what they are seeking is about to get underway at the southeastern tip of the target area. Fernando Franca and Michael Wilson, both of whom are Claymont residents, announced that they have bought the building which housed the long-idle and -deteriorating Fish-O-Rama store at the Seminole Avenue intersection and intend to remodel it  to accommodate two shops and either offices or apartment units upstairs.

Franca said he expects to have his arts-related business "up and running by February." Long-time residents know the property as a Richardson Variety Store from the 1940s through the early 1960s.

Noting that such corner properties "often end up as parking lots," Comitta cautioned against minimizing the significance of the pair's intentions. "People see something like that happening and it then becomes contagious," he said.

Dawn Lamb, president of the business organization, said that upgrading the property could serve as an incentive to other local businesses to spruce up their establishments. Business people who "don't have the funds to invest when we're not getting business in here" are likely to have changes of heart "when they see something being done," she said.

DelDOT project director Bruce Allen told the meeting that the plan for Philadelphia Pike is one or two meetings of an advisory committee from completion. He said it is likely to come out as a hybrid of four previously reported designs for narrowing and 'calming' the traffic flow along the highway. Comitta said he favors, especially in the 'town center' area, wide sidewalks, curbside parking and 'pedestrian-friendly' amenities.

He also called for the final plan to include building a continuation of Manor Avenue on the west side of the pike with it, perhaps, looping around the Brookview complex.

He said both walking and driving must be accommodated. Downtown pedestrian malls, which were fashionable three decades ago, he said, have all but disappeared. "In the 1970s, 400 cities and towns turned their main streets into malls. Now 390 of them have opened them up again to automobiles," he said. Wilmington is among the places which have done so.

"They work in Europe but the automobile is part of American culture. On-street parking gives the impression [a retail district] is alive and well," Comitta said.

On the other hand, the Renaissance steerers voiced objection to persistent media characterization of Philadelphia Pike through Claymont as a sort of gasoline alley. That came up most recently in editorial comment adverse to community opposition to plans to rebuild the McDonald's fast-food restaurant at Harvey Road in what several residents considered an objectionable 1950s motif. "People who say that is good enough for us and criticize our opposition don't recognize what's going on here," Lossé said.

County planner Michael Bennett told the meeting that McDonald's Corp. is now attempting to obtain a renovation permit in lieu of pursuing a modified redevelopment plan. Interior remodeling and putting on a new façade are permissible with a renovation permit, which is considerably easier to obtain that going through the approval process for development or redevelopment. Weiner referred to the reported McDonald's approach "an end-run around the community."

Responding to suggestions that DelDOT delay implementing its plan for the pike until the effort to enlist a developer and have that firm produce a do-able plan, Allen said there is no timetable for installing whatever highway improvements are decided upon. Also, he said, the state's fiscal crisis is likely to hold up their financing anyway.

However, he added, "whatever we decide to do will be of benefit to your community no matter what a developer decides should be done with the idealized buildout."

© 2002. All rights reserved.

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