June  7,  2007

Claymont to reach milestone
with approval of Village plan

Seven years in gestation, Renaissance Village is about to be given the official green light by county government. The Department of Land Use signed off on the ambitious development plan for the 'new urbanist' community on June 5 and County Council will routinely approve it on June 12.

"We've done things everybody said you couldn't do," said Councilman Robert Weiner.

Believed to be the largest-ever residential development in Delaware, the new community on the site of the former Brookview apartments complex is to be the signature piece in the revitalization of Claymont.

"It will bring new life and new people to the Claymont community," said Councilman John Cartier, who represents the area and is primary sponsor of the resolution confirming the subdivision plan which is all but certain to receive unanimous approval.

Under terms of the Unified Development Code, Council cannot reject such plans, but at most can find that they have technical flaws and return them to the land use department to have those corrected. There is no reason to believe that will happen in this instance.

When the resolution was brought before Council's land use committee on June 5, Councilwoman Stephanie McClellan, chair of the committee, was the only one besides Cartier and Weiner to offer any comments. Her remarks were supportive.

Robert Ruggio, executive vice president of the Commonwealth Group, told Delaforum that the Commonwealth-Setting joint venture intends to begin demolition of the existing buildings on the site not later than in August and possibly in July. As previously reported, the build-out is expected to take five to seven years.

It was revealed at the committee meeting that an effort is underway to have Renaissance Village declared a 'special development district' and thereby qualify for tax-incremental financing. For that to happen, however, the state law which authorizes creation of such districts by municipalities would have to be amended to also give New Castle County government that authority.

Tax-incremental financing provides that redeveloped property retain its existing tax assessment but that, in lieu of paying the higher tax that increased value would command, the owner and future owners pay into a fund to pay interest on and eventually retire bonds sold to help finance redevelopment. Since the bonds are sold by a government entity, their interest is generally exempt from income taxes. That has the effect of

enabling the developer to borrow at a lower than commercial interest rate to finance the project. The debt is akin to a mortgage on the property and not a 'faith-and-credit' obligation of the government entity.

The bonds would have a maturity in the range of 20 to 30 years. While the county would not receive additional tax revenue as a result of the redevelopment during that time, it would receive no less than if the property were not redeveloped. The subsidy is justified by residual effect of the project's contributing to improvement of the area economy and quality of life.

Cartier explained that the

Demolition this summer of the existing, now empty, structures of the former Bookview apartments complex will mark the physical beginning of the realization of a dream sparked by a pair of community activists seven years ago.

incentive is intended to  offset the additional cost of  improving and-or replacing existing deteriorated infrastructure. In the case of Renaissance Village, he said, that primarily involves the existing sanitary-sewer system which must be replaced as a condition imposed by the land use department on its approval of the development plan.

The councilman told Delaforum that Renaissance Village will go forward whether or not the General Assembly enacts an amendment to the law before it adjourns at the end of June. "It would be nice to have, but it is not essential. Not having it will not hold up the project," he said.

He added that giving New Castle County government the authority to create 'special development districts' will provide a permanent tool to promote other redevelopment projects.

Another condition attached to approval of the plan is that Commonwealth-Setting hire Torti Gallas, a nationally-recognized urban planning consulting firm, to oversee its compliance with design guidelines that were incorporated into the ordinance which rezoned that property to allow for greater density and other deviations from the Unified Development Code that  'new urbanist' development requires. Torti Gallas produced the conceptual design upon which the guidelines are based.

Cartier said Commonwealth-Setting was agreeable to that arrangement although it equates to having an additional entity figuratively looking over the developer's shoulder while Renaissance Village is being built.

Cartier added that imposing the condition should not be regarded as a matter of distrust, but reflects the facts that the project not only is relatively massive in scope but also is the first of its kind to be undertaken here.

"We regulate land use in New Castle County. We need to make sure what is committed to on paper is what gets built," he said.

He added that budget constraints and limited manpower restrict the amount of oversight the land use department can provide and that it does not have any prior experience with project-specific design guidelines. On the other hand, he said, the department will have sole authority when it comes to enforcing building and related codes, issuing permits and conducting required inspections.

Cartier said that once Council formally approves the project, Commonwealth-Setting will take on a 'co-developer' to do the actual construction. He said he did not know who that will be.

He also said that he could not speculate on the project's ultimate pricetag other than to said "it certainly will be at least a couple hundred million [dollars]."

The plan to be put before Council provides for 1,226 residential units. They include 777 condominium apartments, 236 townhouses, 116 manor apartments, 55 mixed-use units, 26 duplexes, and 16 'live-work' units in commercial buildings.

As previously reported, 10% of the units must be 'affordable' or 'workforce'  housing and Commonwealth-Setting will be required to provide a matching number of such housing elsewhere in the general area. Timing for providing those units is tied to issuance of building permits as the main project proceeds in incremental phases.

A total of 41,704 square feet of commercial space is also provided for in the plan.

The community design is such that "people of all socio-economic means can live here -- and they can live without always needing an automobile," Weiner said. "It's all about front porches as opposed to backyards."

He has frequently used the expression "live, shop work, play, pray and school your children" within walking distance of where they live.

Renaissance Village will contribute to transforming Claymont from "a place people drove through" into "a place where they will want to stop," Weiner said.

Approval of the development plan will come a month or so shy of seven years from when George Lossť, president of the Claymont Coalition, and Dawn Lamb, president of the Claymont Business Owners Association, enlisted Weiner's support in approaching then County Executive Thomas Gordon to obtain 'seed money' to launch what they were calling a community renaissance. The term means 'rebirth' and derives from the regeneration of the arts, literature and culture in medieval Italy.

Weiner represented that area before his district was divided into two with the reapportionment that accompanied Council's expansion from seven to 13 members. Although not a resident of Claymont, he has continued to serve as a staunch public advocate of its revitalization and a sort of 'godfather' of the renaissance.

As Delaforum was the first to report  in the summer of 2000, the initial idea was "refurbishing Philadelphia Pike and, possibly, other areas of Claymont." Even then, however, the proponents had an eye on eliminating the blighted Brookview apartments complex as a key to the success of their intended venture.

Lossť, who has been actively involved in Claymont Renaissance throughout its maturation and is now a member of the community Design Review Advisory Committee, hailed approval of the development plan and the impending start of its implementation.

Renaissance Village, he said, "will bring in an influx of younger people [many of who] will get involved ... and drive Claymont forward."

"It's been years of hard work, lots of meetings, lots of faith and prayer -- and finally it's going to happen," Lamb said.

Get more information about this topic

Read previous Delaforum article: Commonwealth-Setting will remain involved in Renaissance Village

Read the first Delaforum article: Philadelphia Pike to get new look

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