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February 16, 2007

Site of past development battles
expected to be serene this time

The highway intersection where civic activists seeking to revitalize Claymont made their first stand is about to again become a focus of community attention, but it now appears likely it will be the site of cooperation instead of conflict.

Two redevelopment projects are planned for properties on opposite sides of Philadelphia Pike at Harvey Road, Brett Saddler, executive director of Claymont Renaissance Development Corp., told a meeting of the Claymont Design Review Advisory Committee. The owner of one and the prospective owner of the other have both been in touch with him and have declared their intention to work with the committee within the framework of the area's 'hometown'-zoning guidelines, he said.

Town & Country Shopping Center is in for "a major facelift" as part of a plan by owner James Petrucelli to enlarge the drug store which is its anchor tenant. Meanwhile, the building on the east side of the pike which most recently housed Rogues Den, and before that a ballroom and a furniture store, is under contract to be purchased with the intent of being town down and replaced by or converted into a four-shop center. Saddler said he is not at liberty to identify the prospective purchaser and developer.

Those projects are significant, he said, because the intersection is where people traveling north on Philadelphia Pike, leaving northbound Interstate 95 or approaching from western Brandywine Hundred first encounter Claymont.

Recognition of the commercial value of the location resulted a few years ago in controversial development plans for the rebuilt McDonald's restaurant and the Wawa gasoline station and convenience store which now stand there. In both cases the disputes led to compromises regarded as more-or-less satisfactory. More significantly, the disputes spawned both the Claymont Renaissance movement and 'hometown' zoning which appear to have favorably reversed the economic fortunes of the community.

Saddler also reported at the meeting on Feb. 15 that Michael Saltarelli, the Catholic bishop of Wilmington, and Thomas Cini, his chief administrator, have "agreed in principle" to the purchase by American College of the conference center on Philadelphia Pike near Commonwealth Boulevard and the portion of the Holy Rosary property on which it stands. Details are still to be worked out, but Saddler said the deal not only will provide the college with a permanent campus but also create an endowment by which the parish will be able to maintain the viability of its parochial school.

County Councilman John Cartier said he plans to seek 'historic overlay' protection for the conference center building, a former convent once the home of the Worth family, which founded the mill that is now Claymont Steel. Saddler said the college is agreeable to the designation and noted that its affiliate in Dublin, Ireland, was responsible for preservation and restoration of the home of playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde.

Saddler said that Wilmington College also is interested in having a Claymont location. It plans initially to offer four evening courses in the Claymont Community Center but eventually wants to find a site for a campus to accommodate a relatively large number of students who come from Philadelphia and Delaware County, Pa.

The advisory committee unanimously agreed to endorse a plan by Bik Ying Lau and Linda Shau Fun Ng to remodel a property on the pike adjacent to Atonement United Methodist Church, formerly a shop, into a professional office with a second-story residential apartment. They previously had proposed locating a Chinese restaurant there.

The committee's recommended approval for granting variations from the Comprehensive Development Code's provisions governing the number of required parking spaces and driveway setback was made subject to several minor modifications to the property.

Carolyn Mercandante, of the Claymont Historical Society, noted that the building also has some significance in local history. It once was a caretaker's home on the Raskob estate, which now is the Archmere Academy campus.

During discussion it was noted that the proposal came to the committee unaccompanied by a Department of Land Use staff report. Mary Grace Novak, the department's liaison with the committee, said that practice has been determined to be "inappropriate" and discontinued following an embarrassing situation in which the staff report recommended and the Hockessin Design Review Advisory Committee agreed to also recommend disapproval of a plan for a commercial bank in that community only to be overruled by the department.

County Councilman Robert Weiner agreed with Novak that both the preliminary staff report and the committee action are advisory and that the 'hometown' zoning law was not intended to compromise the legal authority of the department and County Council in land-use matters. The Hockessin committee, Weiner said, "acted outside the scope of its authority."

Cartier told the advisory committee that, following County Council's approval of the updated comprehensive plan in March, four committees will be formed to draft legislation to implement its proposed changes in development policies. The committees, which will have community representation, will deal with economic development, affordable housing, 'smart growth' and transfer of development rights.

In the past, he said, comprehensive plans have been adopted and then left on the shelf until the next time to revise them came. "We want to do more than that with this plan," he said. "We're going to get back in the business of letting the [economics] law of supply and demand work."

Weiner said the comprehensive plan that will come before Council represents "a shift from [suburban] sprawl to 'smart growth'" which favors providing village-like communities oriented to walking and use of public transportation.

Cartier also told members of the committee not to sweat the all-but-certain increase in the county property-tax rate. He said it will likely amount to "somewhere between $5 and $10 a month" more on the average residential tax bill. Although that would indicate an increase from the current rate in the range of 17% to 34%, he said "percentages aren't important" when the actual dollar amount "is not a ruinous type of increase."

The alternative, he said, would be drastic cuts in such things as police protectin and paramedics service. "Both the [county] executive and Council are working hard to cut all the fat out of [the coming] budget ... {but] we don't want to compromise vital services," he said.

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