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6/20/2006
Can Old, New Main Streets get along?

By ALISON KEPNER
The News Journal

06/20/2006

Officials approving new -- but old-fashioned -- developments often exult their promise: self-sustaining communities where residents can walk from their front porches to the supermarket, pharmacy or park.

On another day, the same leaders extol efforts at downtown revitalization, encouraging folks to return to the city center to shop and eat on Main Street.

The contradiction seems inherent -- and it troubles community activists in the Middletown area, where both types of building are moving forward.

Huge new subdivisions such as Westown and Bayberry are planned for open tracts on the outskirts of town in what is known as the "neotraditional" style.

They include a mix of housing and neighborhood-type retail stores, with front porches, sidewalks, gazebos and plenty of space for parks.

The idea is to erect "walkable" communities that will curb traffic and sprawl by keeping residents from needing to leave their neighborhoods for milk or a haircut.

The question is, though: How do they mesh with coinciding efforts to revive downtowns such as Middletown's Main Street? Could residents be left with a Main Street that no one supports surrounded by clusters of expensive housing built around miniature town centers?

"It's a real risk that the offerings that they are putting forward as 'amenities' are in reality going to thwart the efforts of the Main Street revitalization in Middletown," said Leann Ferguson, vice president of the Southern New Castle County Alliance, a civic group that monitors land use south of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.

She questions whether the southern New Castle County market can support existing retail and proposed commercial development in the new communities.

Lorraine Dion, Middletown's Main Street manager, isn't worried, though.

"They're trying to recreate our downtown," she said. "We have a structure that's here already. ... People are going to come. They love to have a center of their community."

Ferguson is left wondering whether the center of Westown won't be competing with the center of Middletown.

"I want to see numbers. I want to see some real consultant studies about what is really sustainable," she said.

New Urbanism

The potential clash is a national issue developing since the neotraditional developments gained momentum in the late 1980s and early 1990s as part of the New Urbanism reaction to sprawl. The movement aims to create compact communities where people can live, work, shop and play without getting into their cars.

That is supposed to be a better lifestyle than cookie-cutter tract housing carved around cul-de-sacs where children have no parks to play in and parents have little option but to drive to strip centers along traffic-clogged highways.

The New Urban vision was linked to cities large and small. Advocates wanted to build new neighborhoods to draw people and money back to their center cities, where suburban flight had left vacant storefronts, empty office buildings and deteriorating housing. Officials in places such as Providence, R.I., embraced the movement and now tout its successes.

But much of the development under the New Urban label -- including most of Delaware's -- isn't in cities.

Rather than creating new homes through redevelopment or infill, builders are erecting massive neighborhoods on corn and soybean fields far from true urban centers, although often close to what used to be small rural centers.

And that, critics say, is just sprawl gussied up in a fancier package.

It is what bothers Ferguson about Bayberry and Westown, two huge integrated communities designed to be self-sustaining.

The Village of Bayberry is a planned 2,500-home community on 1,600 acres of farmland straddling Boyds Corner Road several miles north of Middletown. Developer Jay Sonecha plans two mixed-housing neighborhoods and a town center with homes, offices, retail and community space.

At the same time, Rick Woodin's Westown project calls for a mixed-use development on 2,500 acres off U.S. 301 on greenfields that Middletown annexed.

Supporters say that such communities on open land don't constitute sprawl if built correctly, noting there isn't enough land in cities available for infill development to meet the demand of the housing market.

And that means there is a need to build on greenfields, they argue. The key is building self-sustaining villages -- in other words, creating new urban areas.

New Castle County Councilman Bob Weiner, a smart-growth advocate, said building residential and commercial together will contain growth.

"We have to stop building the suburban sprawl shopping centers on the outskirts that gut, take the heart out of downtown," he said.


Southern New Castle County Alliance President Chuck Mulholland said building neotraditional projects in the wrong place, particularly far outside town, could be disastrous for the small businessman.

"You can only build so much commercial," he said. "You can overshoot and end up ruining things for more than just yourself."

Tidying up Main Street

At risk is Middletown's budding effort to spruce up and support the businesses hanging on along Main Street.

The town is in the midst of a $3.5 million to $4 million streetscape project. When complete, Main Street's utility lines will be underground and visitors will walk by old-fashioned streetlights on restored brick sidewalks.

Dion, who is working with property owners to recruit and retain a successful mix of niche businesses, also organizes monthly special events to bring residents and visitors downtown for music, art, food and shopping.

She thinks one new project, Chetty Builders' Promenade, may help, serving as a magnet to draw shoppers -- and residents -- to the old town center.

Chetty plans a $75 million, 18-acre project on East Main Street between Catherine Street and the post office. Designs call for 10 movie screens with up to 200 seats each, upscale retail shops, restaurants and 273 condominiums. In addition to retailers such as Talbots and Old Navy, Chetty executives have said they hope to attract a grocer, a fitness club and a popular chain coffee shop.

Another project calls for a 32-lane bowling alley in the Middletown Square Shopping Center on North Broad Street. The $15 million project, dubbed Mid-County Lanes, is the work of builder Verino Pettinaro and the management group at First State Lanes in Fox Point. They also have suggested incorporating bumper cars and miniature golf.

Dion thinks projects such as Chetty's Promenade could help Middletown's Main Street businesses. Shoppers could walk from the project to downtown, where they would find a mix of unique businesses.

Dion sees the Bayberry and Westown developers' efforts to duplicate a Main Street business district in their neighborhoods as a recognition of downtown's value.

"What it shows to me is the approach works," she said. "I don't look at it as competition."

The difference is the type of businesses. Dion's vision for Main Street is a mix of specialty shops and cafes, unique and personalized merchandise and service that shoppers won't find at the chain or big box stores the projects likely will attract.

But Dave Carter, a community activist and alliance member, fears the new projects could draw customers away from Main Street.

"There's this mad race that everybody is going to develop everywhere, and I think we are getting to a saturation point," he said.

Weiner said the answer is building in the right places.

"You can't stop growth," he said. "They think that the answer is to say 'no' to growth period, whether it is infill or whether it is greenfield."

Weiner advocates New Urban projects if they are done correctly. He sees flaws in some Delaware efforts, considering them hybrids of traditional neighborhood developments because they are not transit-oriented, lack affordable housing or are missing other key elements.

"You have to understand all the components," he said.

The answer, he said, is to regulate better to ensure the right kind of development.

"These projects are not for everyone. They are not for every place," Weiner said.


Contact Alison Kepner at 324-2965 or akepner@delawareonline.com.

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