August 2, 2005

Commonwealth Group expects to complete the deal to purchase the site of the Brookview apartment complex "within a week," according to senior vice president Robert Ruggio. He indicated that an announcement to that effect could come in time to climax a virtually unprecedented week-long charrette the development firm and its planning consultant, Torti Gallas & Partners, are conducting.

Ruggio told Delaforum that he sees no likelihood that the deal could fall through at this point.

The approximately $30 million purchase from the Clark family, he told attenders at a public meeting on Aug. 1, is just the start of a multi-million investment. "The plan will then move forward over the next five to seven years," he said.

Moreover, he held out the possibility that Commonwealth's role in Claymont redevelopment will extend beyond the 66-acre tract, where it envisions building between 1,000 and 1,200 dwelling units of various types and sizes and in various price ranges. "We looking at abandoned houses [and] property not in use in the area," he said.

"We see this expanding farther down the Pike ... even to Bellefonte," said George Lossť, president of the Claymont Community Coalition.

While players in major land-use ventures routinely claim to be tuned in to the communities that will be affected, Commonwealth has gone much further by dealing in local interest groups at the very beginning of

The Brookview complex (above) is a collection of same-looking apartment units. But in five to seven years it may be a mixed-use neighborhood in a transformed Claymont, as shown on charts (below) displayed at a planning charrette.


Robert Ruggio (upper left), Commonwealth Group senior vice president, Councilman Robert Weiner (upper right) and County Executive Christopher Coons described a redeveloped Brookview as an impossible dream about to come true.


Attenders sitting around a work table at the public meeting listen attentively as  project manager Erik Aulestia explains a slide showing Brookview's relation to the planned commercial-uses area along Philadelphia Pike.

the planning process. Purpose of the charrette is to provide an opportunity for representatives of the groups and the public at large to provide the planning firms with ideas and preferences.

Charrette is a French  term widely used in Europe which that has become fashionable in America as a replacement for 'brainstorming' session.

That process is used routinely in community planning efforts, but seldom if ever in connection with  private development projects. "You never see a developer and community sitting down together ... to try to imagine a project," County Executive Christopher Coons said at the meeting.

"Getting Philadelphia Pike to be a good place is not something that we can do by ourselves," said Neal Payton, a principal in Silver Springs, Md.-based Torti Gallas. "We have to work together and it's going to be a long process."

"It is the first time that we as developers have taken on to bring the entire community in," Ruggio said.

Coons's appearance at the meeting and endorsement of the project amounted to  a 180-degree turn in official county government policy. Coons's predecessor, Thomas Gordon, had vehemently opposed inclusion of private redevelopment of Brookview in its plans, making  that a non-negotiable condition for the county's  continued financial and professional-staff support of the Claymont Renaissance movement.

"We are pledged to be a full and active and fair participant" in the project, Coons declared as present policy.

He expressed a "willingness to look at our [development] code and be flexible." The issue in that regard will center on development density.

Payton said a "jumbled up" array of housing, retail outlets and public buildings is key to recapturing some of the feeling that urban communities had in the past and lost by dictating that "everything be alike, even down to the thickness of the paint, as defined by the code." Contrasting the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., with a typical suburban community, he said that the result "separated everything you did in life."

"We blew it," County Councilman Robert Weiner said with reference to past development in the Claymont area. "Auto-oriented development is something we don't like."

"Density is our friend. Density is needed to create a critical mass to attract investment," he added.

Payton said Claymont stands to serve as an example of what can happen if an older community unites behind an effort to reverse the effects of sprawl and near-total dependence on automobile transportation. "What you started five years ago isn't just a local kind of solution to a local issue," he said.

Weiner said the Claymont Renaissance prevailed in the face of considerable skepticism. "There were a lot of times when the process seemed to be working against us," he said. The movement led not only to an 'idealized build-out plan' for Claymont, but also to enactment of a county 'hometown' zoning ordinance which, among other things, gives the force of law to community-developed design standards.

In terms of design, Payton said variation in such things as building set-back can contribute of "a sense of place."

"We Americans spend thousands of dollars to visit places that have no front yards," he said, with reference to an urban tourist attraction in Portugal.

Including so-called 'affordable' housing in the mix also is a plus, he added. It contributes to "a sense of ownership in the community ... when a broad range of housing options is available," he said.

Weiner suggested use of the term 'workforce housing' in lieu of 'affordable housing.' "When you do that, it becomes acceptable," he said.

Ruggio said Commonwealth will not overlook present low-income residents of Brookview. "We will make them an integral part of this project," he said.

When it takes ownership of the existing rental complex, it will improve security and rehabilitate units in disrepair. The short-term result, he added, will probably be an increase in the number of occupied apartments.

Erik Aulestia, who will manage the project for Torti Gallas, said the plan will provide for retention of as many of the existing mature sycamore trees in Brookview as possible. There also will be "innovate methods to deal with stormwater [drainage]," he said.

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