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June 2008

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Wilmington Area Planning Council is about to get community approval for the design of a new Claymont train station, but it's likely to be several years before the community gets the station.

"Development of the Claymont Steel property will determine if the project goes forward," senior planner David Gula told the Claymont Coalition. He said there was a "handshake agreement" with the former owner of the plant that would permit construction of an access road over the tracks and building the new station several yards north of the present one, which is located on a banked curve. Since the plant was sold to a Portland, Ore.-based subsidiary of a Russian company, progress in that direction has bogged down. As it is, Myrtle Avenue, the sole existing access, cannot handle the traffic generated by increasing patronage, he said.

It also will be necessary to raise a significant amount of  local money to help finance the $16 million project if federal dollars to pay most of the cost are to be obtained, Gula said at a coalition meeting on June 20. Building a parking garage to serve the station would require an additional $10 million. The council will present the proposed design -- a contemporary two-story structure with platforms at train-vestibule level -- for public review on June 25. While the design is expected to meet approval from attenders at that session, "it is not a done deal," Gula said. "I'm not telling you I have something I'm ready to move forward with now."

    

FAST START PROMISED: Now that streets and sewer lines are being put in, actual construction of Renaissance Village is soon to come, according to Victoria Davis, president of Urban Atlantic. "If you put in infrastructure you have to build quickly," to recoup that investment, she told the Claymont Community Coalition. She said the proposed revision of the plan for the 'new urbanist village' was structured so that it can be approved administratively by county government once the Claymont Design Review Advisory Committee signs off on it. That is expected to happen at the committee's meeting on June 25.

"We're working with Commonwealth [Group] and three different builders" with a view to starting construction of a townhouse component before the end of the year so the first units can be sold during the "spring market," she told a coalition meeting on June 19. It will take "somewhat longer," she said, to build a retail complex and apartments at the community's main entrance from Philadelphia Pike on an extension of Manor Avenue. She described her Bethesda, Md.-based firm as the "master developer" and said the revised plan represents "newer and better ways to develop this community than what were on the original plan." (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Victoria Davis explains some of the changes in the revised plan for Renaissance Village

The proposed revised plan for Renaissance Village. Initial construction will be the townhouse complex at the lower right of the drawing and the retail complex and apartments at the center bottom.

The original plan, which received Department of Land Use and County Council approval. Like the new one, it called for 1,226 residential units but a smaller retail and commercial-uses component.

    

HERITAGE PLAN: An informal group of organizations and individuals led by Wilmington Area Planning Council and the county Department of Land Use  which has been meeting quietly for three years has developed a conceptual plan to 'sell' as destinations some of the area's attractions, not only to visitors but also to residents. "Hundreds of heritage assets dot the northern Delaware landscape. Unfortunately, the potential for full access and meaningful use for heritage tourism and by Delawareans is not being fully realized," the Northern Delaware Heritage Coalition said in a report made public at an open house on June 18.

The plan divides the county north of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal into five "discovery areas" and proposes a marketing effort to increase public awareness of their attractions. That, the report said, will help "stem the loss of heritage resources; promote good stewardship and conservation; and provide broader interpretation to a much larger number of people." Linking the sites with a network of driving, walking, bicycling and public transit routes is envisioned. The report also cited the economic benefit to be derived from promoting 'heritage tourism' ranging from providing overnight lodging to selling food and maps.

    

Anticipating an extended slump in the national economy, the state's official forecasters will again revise downward their revenue estimates for the coming two fiscal years.

When it meets on June 16 the Delaware Economic & Financial Advisory Council will likely slice $2.1 million from what it estimated in May that state government will take in during the year which begins July 1 and $31 million from estimated revenue in fiscal 2010. The first figure is particularly significant because the General Assembly is required to use it as the basis for the budget and appropriations bill it will enact before wrapping up its current session at the end of June. The council's revenue committee decided, however, to take one more look at the estimates during a brief special meeting just before the full council convenes.

Economist Fred Dixon told the committee at its meeting on June 13 that the economy is still putting out mixed signals. As a result, he said, "I don't look for any upward momentum" in the foreseeable future. Committee chairman Kenneth Lewis said he thinks the current situation is "going to hang around like a bad cold." Two-thirds of a $9 million negative revision in the committee estimate for the current fiscal year was the result of a higher-than-previously-expected increase in personal income tax refunds and the rest was attributed to the portion of lottery revenue generated by slot machines. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

TAKE A HIKE:

County Council members from the area escorted a small group of area residents on a hike along the meandering path through Rockwood Mansion Park as part of a 'walk in the park' program, intended to provide information and an opportunity to interact with public officials in an informal setting being conducted this summer. The Rockwood venture on June 12 included the nearly completed link with the Northern Delaware Greenway in the side of the county park adjacent to Wilmington. Leaders of the tour shown in the photo below were Robert Weiner (third from left), John Cartier and Penrose Hollins (third and second from right). Not shown is Council president Paul Clark.

    

Renaissance Village will net county government at least $25 million and Brandywine School District upward of $29 million in taxes over the next 30 years, according to its developer.

That revenue will begin coming in later this year when the initial parcel is sold to a home builder and realty transfer tax is paid on the transaction, Brock Vinton, president of Commonwealth Group, told County Council's finance committee. Councilman Robert Weiner said the actual financial gain will be much greater because the county no longer bears the cost of extensive policing and code-enforcement at Brookview Apartments, which the mixed-use development replaces. Brett Saddler, who heads the area's economic development corporation, said there also will be a 'ripple effect' from resultant revitalization of Claymont.

Testimony at a committee meeting on June 10 was intended to muster its support for up to $18 million of tax-increment and development-district financing of new infrastructure for the project. However, a resolution to begin the process of authorizing the subsidy did not come before Council's subsequent plenary session because it was inadvertently left off the posted agenda. Nicole Majeski, County Executive Christopher Coons's chief of staff, told the committee that the administration "wants the project to succeed" and is working with Commonwealth to analyze the financing method to determine whether to support it. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article)

Questioned about why Commonwealth paid $32 million for property valued at $15 million, the firm's lawyer William Rhodunda said it didn't buy the apartments, but "building lots and the community's vision."

    

JOINT POLICING SUSPENDED: The precedent-setting joint patrol by a county and a state police officer in the Claymont was ended recently when the trooper was assigned other duties. County police chief Rick Gregory told Delaforum that both agencies consider the initiative to have been successful and worthwhile. It probably will be resumed in the autumn although "not necessarily in Claymont," he said. As previously reported, the patrol made 68 criminal arrests, mostly for drug-related offenses, during the first four months that it was in operation. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

Students in the Brandywine district's three high schools will determine penalties for classmates who commit certain offenses under a pilot program to begin during the coming autumn.

Gist of a plan for 'peer courts' was contained in a summary of proposed changes in the district's student code of conduct presented at a school board 'workshop' on June 9. Judy Curtis, director of administrative services, said the intent of the program is to prevent having to prosecute first offenders in Family or criminal courts. It will be financed by a grant from the Criminal Justice Council and conducted in conjunction with the Y.M.C.A. Offenders will be required to admit guilt and accept the judgments. Their participation in the program is voluntary with parental permission.

Each school will recruit at least 20 students with no disciplinary violations to serve once a month, after receiving training, as presiding judges, on five-member juries or as advocates for the offenders. Penalties -- referred to in Curtis's presentation as "appropriate consequences" -- range from having to write a letter of apology to performing community service arranged by the Y.M.C.A. or participating for up to 10 days in an in-school alternative to suspension. Offenses covered by the program include fighting, harassment, threatening, offensive touching, stealing and possession of tobacco.

District lawyer Ellen Cooper said parents of victims will not be "precluded from doing what is their right to do" relative to offenses handled by the 'peer courts'.

    

Children from some city neighborhoods will be assigned to attend three of the Brandywine School District's eight elementary schools and one of its two middle schools located in the suburbs.

The latest proposed alignment of attendance zones to go into effect when the district changes its grade configuration and closes two buildings in August, 2009, evidently was drawn to at least partly assuage school board president Joseph Brumskill and some parents and other residents who said the previously most recent plan put a disproportionate number of students from low-income households into Harlan Elementary and P.S. du Pont Middle. According to information published in the Brandywine Review, Brandywood, Carrcroft and Lombardy Elementary and Springer Middle will have non-contiguous zones in Wilmington.

The article in the district publication is not specific about percentages of students eligible for government-subsidized lunches expected at each school other than to say the new plan complies overall with the 20%-to-50% range used as a guideline. The range was 19% to 56% in the previously most recent plan. The article points out, however, that use of the state's school-choice law "will undoubtedly undo the economic balance." But it adds, "[W]e have made our best attempt to achieve [balance]." The school board is scheduled to vote on the attendance zones and placement of special programs at its June 23 meeting. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

GOOD TO GO: Charles Baker, general manager of the county Department of Land Use, has accepted a position as executive director of the Chittenden County (Vt.) Regional Planning Commission. His departure leaves Ann Farley, of the Department of Community Services, as the only head of an operating department who held the position when the Coons administration took office three and a half years ago. A county media statement said an acting land use general manager will be appointed and a nationwide search conducted to locate Baker's permanent successor. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

Literally everyone from the general public had gone home before the Planning Board got around to what might be the most significant economic development move in a generation.

Karl Kalbacher, the county's director of economic redevelopment, told the board that a pending ordinance to provide incentives to attract technology-oriented firms by relaxing some key provisions of the Unified Development Code could produce "a significant number of new jobs [related to] expansion of the Aberdeen [Md.] Proving Ground."  Board member Mark Weinberg, however, questioned whether the proposed breaks will be enough to accomplish that. Referring to them as "pretty modest," he asked, "Is there some reason to believe they could lead to anything positive?"

"I don't know. We'll have to see how [it] goes," Kalbacher replied at a board hearing on June 3. He explained that the legislation, sponsored by Councilmen Joseph Reda and Robert Weiner, was drafted in conjunction with the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations. Firms seeking the relaxed provisions have to guarantee to generate, depending upon the size of the facility they want to build, at least 10 or 25 new-to-the-county jobs paying $50,000 a year or more within two years. They would have to post bonds that would be forfeit if they fail to meet the targets. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Given the size of the planned expansion of the Army ordnance center in nearby Maryland, the proposed county ordinance has been compared by some to the state's 1980s Financial Center Development Act.

Last updated on June 20,  2008

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