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Redefining Community in Whitehall

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Just south of the C&D Canal, on land once destined to be the site of a nuclear power plant, Delaware’s future is about to meet its past.

It’s a convergence, not a collision, a forward-looking vision rooted in history.

It’s called the Town of Whitehall, although it isn’t really a town. It is a joint venture partnering the deep-pocketed Welfare Foundation, founded by Pierre S. du Pont, which is providing the land, with two prominent construction management businesses: the Julian family’s Eastern States Development Company, whose strengths include site development, road construction and water and sewer lines, and the DiSabatino family’s EDiS, known for its expertise in office, commercial, industrial, school and hospital construction.

The first model homes, built with painstaking adherence to a pattern book that sets standards ranging from the pitch of the roofs to the type of nails used on the front porches, rose over the winter in the project’s first section, a village called Mapleton. The first residents, pioneers in Delaware’s first venture into what is known as the New Urbanism, will move in this summer.

If and when it’s done—and that might be 25 years from now—Whitehall is supposed to be a collection of seven villages or hamlets, a total of about 3,800 homes on 900-plus acres, with each village having a blend of housing styles, shops and open space, with a school and other community buildings for good measure.     

Whitehall may sit in what had been, until recently, the middle of nowhere, but its developers describe it in terms of places virtually every Delawarean knows. Think of Wilmington’s Trolley Square neighborhood, old New Castle or historic Lewes. Each features a mix of housing, from apartments and rowhomes to what qualified as mansions in their heyday, all nearly side by side, with shops, taverns and workplaces just a few minutes away. Now give those communities a 21st-century upgrade and build those residences with modern amenities such as central air conditioning and the garages so many Trolley Square residents wish they had.

“The concept isn’t new,” says Brian DiSabatino, president and CEO of EDiS. “It’s a return to the planning model that created towns like Rehoboth, great cities like Dover, great neighborhoods like Trolley Square.”

In fact, Whitehall’s developers, New Castle County land use professionals and other experts agree: prior to a recent change in the county’s Unified Development Code, zoning regulations made it impossible to gain approvals to build a 21st-century replica of New Castle or Lewes anywhere in the state.

Because we take the 20th-century concept of zoning for granted, we sometimes forget the literal meaning of the term: There’s a zone for apartments, a zone for small homes, a zone for large homes, a zone for schools, a zone for shops, a zone for industrial uses and for others.

Whitehall relies on what is known as a form-based code, a set of regulations that emphasizes what buildings look like, not how they are used. 

Form-based codes are “cutting-edge tools” in land use management, says Susan Henderson, a principal in Placemakers, a land-use planning firm that participated in the development of the code that made Whitehall possible and worked with Whitehall developers to create the community’s master plan. 

“It’s kind of a niche market that’s beginning to build in popularity with developers,” Henderson says. “There’s a huge cohort of millennials and retiring boomers who want a more urban environment. Many developers are realizing this is the wave of the future.”

“Builders can be hard-headed with doing their own designs. They feel like they know the market better than anybody else,” admits Matt Thompson of Thompson Communities, a second-generation builder in Delaware and Pennsylvania that has signed on as one of the first three members of Whitehall’s Builders Guild. 

Thompson will build Whitehall’s townhomes, Benchmark Builders will handle the courtyard homes and cottages, and Murphy Homes will build the estate and custom homes.

With the form-based code and the pattern book, all three builders will have to meet the same standards for exterior construction, so there will be no glaring clash of styles, even among homes of different sizes.   

Thompson is willing to set aside the stubbornness sometimes found within his industry to give the concept a try. “The boomer generation wants to get out of their big houses, the generation behind that is interested in walkability, and the millennials—well, some of them don’t even want cars,” he says. 

The Whitehall Market

That’s precisely what the Whitehall team is betting on: That baby boomers reaching retirement age, the Generation Xers in the prime of their working lives and millennials in the early stages of their careers are all looking for homes in walkable communities filled with parks, small shops and amenities that match their lifestyles.

“We’re finding that millennials are interested. I’m 45. People younger than me, they’re not interested in owning an acre,” says Chris Grundner, chief operating officer for the Welfare Foundation. “Then we’ve got the empty nesters and the retirees, and they’re saying, ‘I don’t want to be in an over-55 community where everybody looks like me.’”

Residents of popular small towns in Delaware understand Whitehall’s appeal.

“I see this as a driver of what communities of the future will look like,” says 36-year-old Mike Rasmussen, who opened Painted Stave Distillery in Smyrna in 2013. “My generation found that suburbia was a disconnect from living in a town. More people will be attracted if you deliver amenities” like restaurants, cafes, parks and service businesses, whether in an established town like Smyrna or a new town like Whitehall, he says.

Esther Lovlie, manager of the Main Street business development program in Delaware City and owner of the Penn’s Place artists’ collective in New Castle, admits that she would have given Whitehall a close look if it had been built before her move from Bear to New Castle. “Self-contained communities are going to be a trend,” Lovlie says. “Millennials are very social, but they value their time. One of the reasons I picked New Castle is because I can walk everywhere.”

While its developers are marketing Whitehall by drawing parallels to familiar towns such as New Castle and Lewes, their real models are a series of successful contemporary mixed-use communities, including Seaside in Florida, Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Md., and Norton Commons near Louisville, Ky.

Seaside, near Panama City on the Florida panhandle, was built in the 1980s as one of the first examples of the New Urbanism. It has more than 300 homes, a dozen restaurants, and about 40 shops and galleries on 80 acres. Developer Robert Davis sold the first 40- by 100-foot lots, closest to the beach and the town center, for $6,000, Henderson says. Similar lots on the back side of the community are now selling for $1 million or more, she adds.

Kentlands, in Gaithersburg, was designed in the late 1980s by urban planners Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who were also credited with Seaside’s design. Kentlands grew slowly, as the original developer ran into financial problems, but now has more than 8,000 residents. Its Main Street is a mixed-use area with distinctive live-work buildings—retail and office uses on the lower floors, residences upstairs. Mike Watkins, an architect who is working on the Whitehall project, is a resident of one of Kentlands’ live-work buildings. “These communities take a long time to mature,” he says, “but time allows things to mature more successfully.”

Norton Commons, also designed with input from Duany, is still under construction on 600 acres of former farmland. It already has more than 800 residences, 50 businesses, two schools and dozens of parks, pools and green spaces. Its plan features a mixed-use village center that includes attached and detached multi-family and single-family housing, retail, offices, live-over-work dwellings and a smattering of carriage homes. 

Two of Whitehall’s first buyers, John and Joy Littell of Wexford, Pa., scouted out Whitehall online while researching other examples of New Urbanism as they sought a retirement destination. They were looking for a walkable community with easy access to parks and services, and, most important, 63-year-old John says, “something less homogenous—not a retirement community, but a place with families and children.”

Having learned of the success of communities like Kentlands and Norton Commons, Littell says he’s not concerned about pioneering in Whitehall. It may take a couple of years after they move in next summer for the village to fill in, but that’s not a worry. “We’re committed to the values,” he says.

Though the Littells are headed to Whitehall from a Pittsburgh suburb, Beth and Jay Anderson are just moving down the road, downsizing from a six-bedroom home in the nearby Crosslands at Canal subdivision into a four-bedroom Thompson-built twin.

The thought of living in a twin after many years in a detached home on a large lot “is giving me a little pause,” Beth Anderson admits, but she has relatives who have had a good experience living in Kentlands. “They love it,” she says. “It just seems to really work well.”

Like the Littells, the Andersons aren’t worried about being surrounded by construction after they move in.

“One of the things I liked about Whitehall is that there will be seven villages, but they’re going to complete one before they move on to the next,” Beth says.

Looking into the future

As the Littells, the Andersons, and the other early residents sit on their front porches or chat in the café in the Mapleton village, they will no doubt spend hours talking about what their community will look like five, 10, 15 years from now.

Yes, the developers talk about replicating small-town life of a century or more ago, building homes large and small practically around the corner from each other, offering opportunities for socialization seldom seen in homogeneous subdivisions. 

“People want to live next to somebody, no matter what they earn,” builder DiSabatino says. “You want to live with the millionaire on one side and the breadmaker on the other. You want to grab coffee with the white-collar professional and the janitor.”

There is little chance of blue-collar workers living next door to bank presidents at Whitehall, however, at least not at the start. With the least expensive homes starting just below $300,000, it will take a family income of $100,000 or more for most buyers to qualify for a mortgage.

Whatever their means, the early buyers should be confident in their investment, Grundner says. “The first people have to buy into the vision. That’s what we’re trying to sell,” he says. “But once the community gets engaged, as the retail moves in, housing prices escalate considerably.”

As Mapleton is completed and work on the second village is begun, the developers will have the advantage of working with what Henderson calls “patient money.” The Welfare Foundation purchased the land from Delmarva Power in 1984, and it took 30 years for construction to begin. The foundation, the reasoning goes, is not under economic pressure to build and sell quickly in order to turn a profit.

“If something goes wrong, or doesn’t work out, the only thing Welfare has sold is 50 acres of land up here [in Mapleton],” says Peter C. Morrow, the foundation’s president and chief executive officer. “If it falls apart, we’ve still got 800-plus acres and, hopefully, it will increase in value” while different land use plans are developed. 

Working in their favor, the developers believe, are the planned 226-acre Scott Run Business Park, also owned by the Welfare Foundation, and the construction of the U.S. 301 bypass toll road, both on the edge of Whitehall.

Construction of the 1.8 million-square-foot business park, approved by New Castle County in 2004, has not begun, but it potentially offers hundreds of office jobs just a jitney ride away for Whitehall residents. The foundation is about to begin marketing the site to possible employers, Grundner says. 

“We believe employers want to be closer to employees. This will be one of the selling features of Scott Run,” DiSabatino says. “And if [Scott Run] employees are living in holistic fashion at Whitehall, they will be happier.”

Construction of the long-planned U.S. 301 bypass was to begin in January, after the state Department of Transportation arranged in December for more than $400 million in financing through a bond sale and a loan from the Federal Highway Administration. Completion of the bypass, expected in December 2018, will heighten Whitehall’s visibility and give residents easier access to Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

The challenge at Whitehall is not putting up the buildings, but in establishing an environment that enables hundreds of people, thrown together in a new setting, to somehow create a true community.

Watkins, the architect who lives at Kentlands, believes it can be done. The design of the first village, with a walkable environment, a clear center and edge with a variety of uses in the center, prominently located civic buildings and “not letting the wealthiest buy at the top of the hill,” indicates to him that the Welfare Foundation is headed in a direction that “leaves a legacy for the region.”

But, he adds, it’s the details that enhance communication and relationship-building, things like front porches that are within conversational distance of the sidewalk, a system of back alleys for garages and parking so driveways don’t create concrete barriers between neighbors, level sidewalks so it’s easy to set up tables outside a café, and streets designed to “give pedestrians and bicyclists a chance equal to the automobile.”

How, then, will success at Whitehall be measured? “It can take a generation to judge success, or it can take a day,” Watkins says, giving an example of the latter in his Kentlands neighborhood. “A family moved in whose boys had been taking a bus ride 45 minutes each way to school. They move here, and the next day they can walk to school,” he says. “If that’s not a measure of success, I don’t know what is.”

“This is as much about the experience as it is about the house, so plugging in recreation, entertainment, art and seclusion, they’re all part of the formula,” DiSabatino says.

On a larger scale, he says that, if Whitehall is completed with all 3,800 residential units and amenities within a quarter mile of home, “we will have stopped 900 acres of sprawl and removed 20 million miles of traffic from the road in a year.” 

In Grundner’s view, success doesn’t require building out the entire 900 acres, though that is the ideal. What matters is that residents, by walking more and driving less, by having more free time because workplaces and amenities are closer to home, will be healthier and happier. 

“Say we’ve got 2,000 homes on maybe 600 of the 900 acres,” he says. “You’re going to see the vision, you’re going to feel the success. You’re going to know that this was a great project.”

If,15 years from now, the people living in those homes are sipping a latte outside the café, walking to the barber shop or watching their kids (or grandkids) playing in the park, he’ll be satisfied.

Thompson puts it in terms that any homebuyer can understand. If the partnership can execute its vision, it won’t matter whether you paid $300,000 or $600,000 for your residence, “it’s everybody’s million-dollar home.”

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