Delaforum

News

July 2,  2008

Residents en masse decry
plan for Barley Mill Plaza

Rick Cross fears that the proposed redevelopment of Barley Mill Plaza will cast a shadow over his home in adjacent Westhaven -- literally.  

He told a Planning Board hearing on the exploratory plan for the massive Stoltz Realty Partners project that he checked with the Naval Observatory and found out that your typical eight-story building emits a 431-foot shadow two hours prior to sunset during autumn, when the trees between his property and the former Du Pont Co. complex shed their leaves. That's more than enough to shade his house and those of many of his neighbors, but he has since learned that the tallest of the 29 buildings Stoltz proposes to erect will be 11 stories tall.

Shadows and what pass in Delaware for skyscrapers spell declining property values and dehanced quality of life, a parade of residents of several of the affluent suburbs which radiate out from the western edge of Wilmington said during 90 minutes of testimony at the hearing on July 1.

"It's a real threat [to] some of the most prominent communities in Delaware," Jeffrey Schlerf said. "It's going to draw outsiders to the area."

Stoltz lawyer Pam Scott said the mixed-use development on the 96-acre site will consist of 1.4 million square feet of "exciting, nicely developed" retail space, 657,000 square feet of commercial office space and 700 residential units in a "pedestrian-friendly" setting.

All but one of the former Du Pont office buildings will be demolished, she said. She did not specify which one nor explain why it will be left standing. Du Pont, which is moving operations to its nearby Chestnut Run complex, sold the property to Bryn Mawr, Pa.-based Stoltz, reportedly for $90 million, last year. The new development is said to be a $525 million project.

Scott said it  is too soon to provide a firm timetable, but the project is expected to take about 10 years to build in phases that she said will be geared to "market conditions."

She said that the low-rise retail area facing Centre Road will be set back about the same distance as the present office buildings. "As you work your way into the project, it starts to get taller," she said, with high-rise apartments and condominiums and culminating with the 11-story office building.

Pointing out that the development code requires compatibility with surrounding areas, board member Sandra Anderson said, "There are no other 11-story buildings around [in the vicinity]."

Craig Wasserman, of K.A. Inc., a Cleveland, Ohio-based architect firm, acknowledged that "this is a little bit of uncharted territory as far as the county is concerned."

Scott was unable to provide an explanation when board chairman Victor Singer questioned several differences in details on the plan filed with the Department of Land Use and the drawing displayed at the hearing to which she referred while explaining the plan. The closest she could come was to note that the proposal is in its very early stages with many details yet to be determined.

Singer said the purpose of the hearing was to begin to develop a record of public comment that will form the basis for guiding the project through the approval process. The board will not make a recommendation at this point. The site does not require rezoning, but the project must comply with a wide variety of code requirements to receive approval.

Scott said that, while there will be changes as the process proceeds, the overall project will not be increased in scope. Later, during a brief 'rebuttal' period after public testimony, she categorically denied suggestions that there could be an intention to stop after just some of the phases are completed.

"We're in the very early stages. Lots of issues raised [during testimony] we're not in a position to discuss tonight," she said. But, she added, "there is absolutely no chance there is going to be any abandonment of [part of] this site."

Singer drew a laugh from the standing-room-only crowd when he routinely asked if there was anyone in the audience who wished to testify in favor of the project. That is the standard way to begin taking testimony. He had plenty of takers when he next asked if anyone was opposed.

Long-time residents of the Wilmington area recognize that the issue apparently is roilling the Kennett Pike-Westover Hills community more than any other since it was being buzzed by biplanes and Piper Cubs when what is now the Barley Mill site was the Du Pont Airport and housed a distant ancestor of U.S. Air. Despite the size of its complex, Du Pont Co. managed to keep a low profile and go about its business quietly, aided no doubt by recognition that it was helping pay the mortgages of many of the community residents.

Championing them now was County Councilman Robert Weiner, who represents the near-in Christiana Hundred suburbs. He set the tone for testimony when he described the proposed project as "bigger than Christiana Mall" and the largest ever in the history of New Castle County. He said it was "out of context with the community character" and "is designed to draw regional traffic ... in incredible numbers." At a minimum, he said, it requires "a binding manual of design guidelines."

Councilman William Tansey, whose adjacent district includes the Barley Mill site, did not attend the hearing.

Resident Chris McEvilly, who formerly was a consultant to Delaware Department of Transportation, said the project will "completely overwhelm existing infrastructure." She said both Kennett Pike and Lancaster Pike are reaching their capacity and Delaware Route 141, which includes Centre Road, is overburdened. "There is no room for expansion [of those roads]," she said.

Dick Calabro pointed out that 2,000 Du Pont employees will be relocated but not removed from the area. They will continue to use the roads in the area while being joined by those who will live, work and patronize the stores in the redeveloped Barley Mill Plaza, he said.

David Amado, music director of the Delaware Symphony and area resident, said additional traffic will acerbate an existing noise problem. "It will obliterate bird calls and make outdoor conversation a shouting match," he said.

Ann Miller questioned whether there would be enough patronage to support the proposed retail establishments, which necessarily will be upscale. "We're not going to get another K-Mart or a Target. How are we going to sustain something this size?" she said.

"The scale of this thing is off the charts. ... It's bizärre," said Clinton Laird.

Weiner acknowledged that, in the end, opposition cannot prevail over allowable development. "We're not here to stop it. We're here to make it the best possible project," he said.

Scott concluded her remarks by promising that Stoltz "will continue to be meeting with people in the community and talking about the project" as it moves forward.

Get more information about this topic

Read previous Delaforum article:

CLICK HERE to respond to this article or to express
your views on any topic of public interest.

© 2008. All rights reserved.