Claymont ready for renaissance
Redevelopment of Brookview complex a vital part of vision
By BETH MILLER / The News Journal
CLAYMONT -- The cornerstone of Claymont's 5-year-old revitalization effort, known as the Claymont Renaissance, is nearly in place -- a deal that could produce the largest residential development in Brandywine Hundred.
A buyer for Brookview Townhomes has been selected but not officially announced. Of the four finalists for the 66-acre property, valued at more than $31 million if government-backed development incentives are included in the deal, three said they were not chosen. Neither the final firm -- the Delaware-based Commonwealth Group -- nor Jan Clark, whose family owns Brookview, returned phone calls asking for comment.
Officials are walking carefully through final negotiations, trying not to do or say anything that might wreck the deal, which is expected to settle in a month or so. None would speak on the record about details of the potential Brookview sale.
All, however, acknowledged its significance for Claymont's future. The unincorporated area has a rich history, many transportation options, a riverfront -- lots of potential. But its most public face is blotched with tired buildings, fast-food restaurants and dollar stores.
If the hopes of some leaders are realized at the Brookview site, much of Claymont will change -- in ways communities elsewhere have seen when large parcels are sold and developed. New homes will replace worn-out apartments, drawing higher-income residents. They, in turn, will draw the kind of new business identified as best for the proposed "Claymont Center" nearby, the core of the Renaissance plan -- bakeries, cafes, bookstores, restaurants, a grocery store and other shops.
"It's the pivotal, crucial element to moving the Claymont Renaissance into high gear," said New Castle County Councilman Bob Weiner, who represented the area until redistricting last year removed all but a small piece from his district. Weiner has met for years with constituents, business owners and government officials to plan the future of Claymont.
"Brookview is key," said George Lossé, president of the Claymont Community Coalition and a Claymont resident for more than 20 years. "What happens there will drive what happens out here."
Plans for the broader Claymont community -- formed in partnership with town planner Tom Comitta, whose other facelift projects include the Manayunk section of Philadelphia -- address everything from roadways to historic preservation, storefronts and landscaping.
The look of the future is a traditional neighborhood design, with lots of front porches and pedestrian-friendly layouts, Weiner said.
Signs of change in Claymont and hints of what it will be 10 years from now already are evident, said Brett Saddler, president of the Claymont Renaissance Development Corporation. He points to a new Wawa under construction on Philadelphia Pike, and to the distinctive design of the new Dunkin' Donuts shop. A wall in front of the new McDonald's is typical of what may be required to give a "graceful edge" to the roadside.
Some new businesses had to ignore doubters when they chose Claymont.
"There were a lot of naysayers," said Lou DeYenno, general manager of the Waterfall banquet center, which opened in 2002 and is on track to do $1.3 million in sales this year. "They said, 'It's Claymont. It has a reputation. It's never going to happen.' But we've overcome a lot of the negativity. It's changing. It's going to take some more time, but this corner of the state is going to flourish."
Even Tom DiCristofaro, a Claymont native and president of Claymont Fire Company, is starting to agree.
"I was the biggest naysayer going about the Brookview proposal," he said. "I thought someone would have to be crazy to buy Brookview. Now I find out four were crazy enough to do it and the buyer is a Wilmington-based company. ... I'm not a 100 percent believer yet. But I'm playing along to see what happens."
High hopes for Brookview
Brookview, considered a model community when it was built in the 1950s, has seen decades of decline, but saw its strategic and financial value zoom after New Castle County Council approved an ordinance last year creating a hometown overlay district for Claymont.
The apartments were not included in the overlay district, where design restrictions are in place in an effort to reshape Claymont's face with a more traditional neighborhood look.
But the possibility of adding the land to the district gave government officials leverage with potential buyers of the property. If they agreed to restrictions on design and use, county officials could grant higher density -- which could boost the number of units from 633 to more than 1,000 -- and the streamlined permitting process that can come within that district, Weiner said.
"The county will work with the community and the developer on a plan for Brookview," said Charles Baker, land use manager for New Castle County. "When we all have come up with the best plan that works for everybody, we adopt that into the overlay with design guidelines needed to make it work. ... That can save developers a lot of time in trying to get variances."
If the density tops 806 units, the new development will pass Graylyn Crest as the development with the most housing units in Brandywine Hundred, county officials said. Buyer demand for those units could be high.
Brookview's location -- near interchanges for I-95 and I-495, a commuter rail station, and not far from the Delaware River -- makes it attractive to commuters, young families and empty nesters.
"It's going to appeal to all sorts of people because of the location," said Dan Bockover, president of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred.
Bockover said the right kind of amenities could be a big draw for seniors, many of whom are weary of maintaining larger homes and are looking for ways to stay in Delaware.
Changing the demographics
Brookview provides housing for many low-income families, who pay about $535 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, $595 for two bedrooms.
Lisa Imburgia, of Brandywine Hundred, said she lived in Brookview about 38 years ago, while she and her husband were waiting for a home to be built.
"It was nice then," she said, but now it has problems with drugs and deteriorating units. She likes the proposals she has heard and the "hometown" look planners want.
"They want to improve Claymont basically from the ground up," she said.
Possibilities include bulldozing the 50-year-old buildings to make way for a variety of housing types, with a component of affordable housing, Weiner said, that might start at about $160,000.
That would be beyond the reach of many -- if not all -- current Brookview residents.
"If it was $100,000, I doubt I could afford that," said Chandra Ciccone, who has lived in a Brookview one-bedroom with her husband and daughter for about two years. She expects to move away if the new complex is built. "We've been looking around."
No construction is likely for about a year, county officials said. But a small group of county residents, school and church leaders, and representatives of fair housing groups -- calling themselves the Concerned Citizens Coalition -- has been meeting for more than a year to work on behalf of Brookview residents and be sure their voices and concerns are heard.
"What's going to happen to the people?" asked Martha Sommers, who knows many Brookview families from her work as the nurse at Darley Road Elementary School. "The fear factor is huge. ... All we ask is that social responsibility be considered and acted upon."
Tom Ashe, a Claymont chiropractor who represents Journey To Justice, an advocacy group in his St. Helena's Catholic parish, is among those working to see they're protected.
"If they're going to be displaced, I would like to see them have help in relocating at probably the same rate of rent they are paying now -- and to have it happen in such a way that you don't create so much anxiety," Ashe said.
Weiner said the county probably would request some package of relocation assistance, first-time homebuyer assistance and the affordable housing component as part of its negotiations with the developer.
County Councilman John Cartier, who represents most of Claymont after winning the new 8th District seat in November, said he wants to be sure "wholesale evictions" don't happen at the complex, and that no one becomes homeless because of the deal. He said he also hopes to introduce the concept of "inclusionary zoning" -- requiring new development to be made up of at least 10 percent to 15 percent of affordable housing -- to County Council soon.
Community plan drawn up
Details of the Brookview deal have not been disclosed yet. But concept plans for Claymont's renovation and future are spelled out and illustrated in the Claymont Community Redevelopment Plan.
The draft plan, published by county officials last August, maps out the kind of development and business climate agreed on in community meetings. They include more pedestrian-friendly passages, bike paths and a sort of "town center" idea along Philadelphia Pike from Darley Road to Seminole Avenue.
No such thing would be on the drawing board if not for residents like George and Nora Lossé, who were among the charter members of the 11-year-old Claymont Community Coalition.
When former New Castle County Executive Tom Gordon announced plans to close the Claymont Library, Lossé met with him. Soon, the county was taking a much greater interest in the future of Claymont -- investing money and staff in studies, plans and negotiations. Area businesses, too, provided grants to help the plans get traction. And the state Department of Transportation is designing improvements to the main drag -- Philadelphia Pike.
The Claymont Business Owners Association and Claymont Historical Society joined forces with the Community Coalition to help steer plans for the community's future.
"We need to market Claymont," Saddler said. "If you look around at Brandywine Hundred, there's not a lot of affordable housing. And if you want to attract businesses to northern Delaware, you need a place for them to move into."
While most like the plans that are emerging, not everyone likes the process.
Robert Donnelly, for example, said it would be better for Claymont to incorporate and elect leaders who would have to answer to voters.
"The coalition was not elected by the Claymont community," said Donnelly, who has lived in Claymont for about eight years. "I agree with what they're doing, but not how they're doing it."
He believes 10 years from now Claymont will be the same as ever.
"Brookview will fall through because they're going to make so many demands on [developers]," he said.
Fire company president DiCristofaro said incorporating Claymont would just add another layer of government -- and, he said, judging from recent difficulties in Frederica, Smyrna and Elsmere -- it might not be a good layer.
Those who have been part of all the Claymont committee meetings and work groups for the past five years have done a good job, he said. They've almost made a believer out of him.
"I was ready to sink the ship," DiCristofaro said. "I would never in my wildest dreams have believed what is happening.
"Now it looks like I'm going to have to come on board."
The unincorporated area, first settled in the late 1630s, generally is defined as ZIP code 19703, extending north to the Pennsylvania line, west to the CSX Railroad tracks next to I-95, east to the Delaware River, south to Perkins Run creek that flows under Philadelphia Pike between Silverside and Harvey roads.
Median age: 35.1
Median household income: $42,009
People below poverty level: 1,158
Housing units: 7,070
Renter occupied: 3,131
Source: 2000 Census
Contact Beth Miller at 324-2784 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The News Journal/JENNIFER CORBETT
The Brookview Townhomes in Claymont, seen through the front door of one of its 633 units, have been in decline in recent years after having been touted as a model community when they were built in the 1950s.
The News Journal/JENNIFER CORBETT
Seen from across Philadelphia Pike at the Wawa market under construction at Harvey Road, the newly rebuilt McDonald's shows design elements that are part of the Claymont Renaissance concept.
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