The Gale family has lived in Townsend Village II, a paint-by-numbers spiral of 100 4,000-square-foot homes just south of Middletown, for just a year. Everything in their community, still under construction, seems to speak of the American Dream. Maple saplings will one day grow to shade the streets. Basketball hoops spring from blacktop driveways on Esch Street. A pink tricycle is parked in an open garage on Karins Boulevard.
Standing in his yard, Brian Gale stops jabbing his shovel into the ground to gesture toward the swath of neighborhoods that surround him. “You look around here,” he says, waving his hand, “and almost every house has small children.”
Less than 200 yards from his home is a barren spot slated to become The Shoppes of Townsend. Gale is opposed. So is his next-door neighbor, Martine Adams, who leaves her kitchen to come out and join Gale’s conversation.
“Our concerns as residents run the whole gamut of concerns that every parent has, such as our children’s safety, sharing a common intersection,” Gale says, “not to mention that there tends to be a bad element that gravitates to strip malls of this kind.”
But most of all, the opposition is about traffic.
Townsend Town Council gave preliminary approval to The Shoppes of Townsend on July 2. The project will include two 6,500-square-foot restaurants, a 6,400-square-foot convenience store and gas station, a 23,000-square-foot retail pad, a 22,800-square-foot retail-office building, a 4,000-square-foot bank, a 9,000-square-foot day-care facility and parking lots.
And even though it’s the type of project some area residents have wanted for years, it’s one that hasn’t gone over well with others.
“We don’t want to see an influx of unfamiliar people, increased traffic, pollution from a gas station, and no place for our kids to play,” Adams says. “This is the eroding of the dream that we have for our families.”
At Triple Bea’s Deli and Restaurant on Main and Commerce, owner Beatrice Wyatt has greeted her frequent customers with small talk and home cooked food for the past three years. A lifelong resident of Townsend, Wyatt used to swim as a child in Silver Lake near St. Andrew’s School. It was a bucolic existence, so the Shoppes of Townsend proposal is, to her, the latest in a series of attempts to destroy the character of the area she once played in.
“These developers are forgetting one thing, and that is that Townsend is a small town,” Wyatt says. “They’re trying to weed us out and take our country look away. It’s bad enough that all of the developments are here, but I promise you, this project will make Townsend look tacky. If you want tacky, drive eight minutes up the road to Middletown.”
Opposition to the Shoppes of Townsend echoed Wyatt’s feelings on June 4, when more than 75 Townsend residents attended a town council meeting to voice their concerns to a presentation by Karins Engineering, the local engineering firm that planned the project.
Attendees told council that the proposed site would trigger a staggering increase in commercial development, like that along the Del. 299 corridor between Middletown and Odessa. Residents opposed the plan specifically on their fear of increased traffic, a hazard for the many children of Townsend Village II who use the bus stop at the entrance on Del. 71.
The designers have met some conditions, including creation of a visual buffer between the retail and residential areas, increasing the number of tree lines that separate the proposed complex from Townsend Village II, and installation of a traffic signal at the entrance to the community, pending approval by DelDOT.
Page 2: Not in My Back Yard (Even if it Was Approved Before My Neighboorhood Was Built), continued…
“This shopping center will provide jobs,” councilwoman Sherry Drake says. “We could do worse than to create a shopping center. The way it’s being designed, there should be no reason for traffic to have to go through Townsend Village II. I know many of the residents there are currently opposed to it, but perhaps they’ll end up using these stores and offices once they’re here.”
Anthony Ripanti, a Townsend Village II resident, has a different perspective.
“There are banks three miles up the road in Middletown and gas stations in either direction,” Ripanti says. “I don’t doubt that these retail shops would be used by the members of our community, but I doubt that they would have any real value to the people of Townsend.”
Ripanti has lived on Esch Street with his wife since 2006. Because he commutes to his engineering job in Philadelphia and is working toward a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Delaware, he says he has little time for anything but work and family, which now includes a four-month-old son. Yet soon after the town council meeting on June 4, when details of the plan were first disclosed, Ripanti formed an alliance of Townsend Village II residents to voice their concerns.
“Our main argument was that in order for the plan to receive pre-approval, there needed to be a soft turn (right turn in, right turn out) off of Route 71 at both sides of the proposed complex to alleviate the traffic at the entrance to our community,” Ripanti says.
The request has become part of a tug-of-war between the Townsend council, Karins Associates and DelDOT. Townsend Mayor David B. Raughley says that in order to proceed to the next step of the proposal, Karins must submit the requested “right in, right out” plan to DelDOT.
“If DelDOT accepts it, Karins can go right to the drawing of the plan, and if they reject it, Karins needs to come back to town council and tell us that such a request is unacceptable,” Raughley says.
Once all recommendations are approved by DelDOT, Karins will create a full set of plans, factoring in the neighbors’ concerns. The revised plan will be sent to the Townsend engineer and code enforcement officer, who will then register their concerns. Whether or not council accepts the plan depends on them.
If the engineer and code enforcement officer’s concerns are extensive, Raughley predicts the town council will reject the proposal. If there are a few minor issues, however, council should approve it. Those issues could be addressed during construction.
The initial concept for the Shoppes at Townsend dates to 2001, when several Townsend residents requested of council that a retail complex be built.
“Before Townsend Village II was even approved for annexation, we heard requests by many of our older residents saying, ‘Please build a place that has a dentist’s office and a coffee shop so that we don’t have to drive all the way to Middletown,’” Raughley says. “My next-door neighbor has lived here for 60 years, and once a week, he comes to me and asks when the shops will be built.”
The Shoppes at Townsend are part of the town’s comprehensive plan, which calls for further annexation to build retail and residential complexes.
As documents and regulations are handed from one party to the next, Ripanti continues to send flyers around the community, asking neighbors for their names, email addresses and concerns about the proposal. Ultimately, he’d like to form a legal civic association. He has been encouraged by several residents in Townsend Village II who are interested in joining.
“You can’t stop progress, but our goals have become more a matter of determining how long we are able to slow it down,” Ripanti says. “What our community is trying to do is put this development off until there is a population base that is worthy of it.”
Page 3: Noise in the Maestro’s Sanctuary
Behind David Amado’s home in Westover Hills, there exists a thicket of woods that looks as though it were placed carefully for someone who needs a refuge to do the serious mind work of his profession.
In this place Amado, conductor of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra, splits wood from poplar and oak trees that have fallen during storms. He builds stacks of kindling and logs for the fireplace. He walks his dog, Lucy. And in his mind, he connects the dots of symphonies he will conduct.
The two acres are nearly perfect. Nuthatches and cardinals and robins fly about the property. There is only one problem: One can barely hear them over the noise from Del. 141.
The highway runs just behind Amado’s property. The traffic registers at 60 decibels on a sound meter he holds toward the sky. That’s close to the federal limit of 67.
“This noise directly impacts the quality of my life,” Amado says. “At rush hour, you can’t hold a conversation out here.”
Lately Amado has an even larger reason to be concerned. Proposal of a new development could, if passed, raise the noise in Westover Hills even more. And it could change the local landscape forever.
The Barley Mill Plaza plan, proposed for 100 acres of the former DuPont Barley Mill complex along Del. 141—less than 500 yards from Amado’s home—would create a mixed-use development of 2.9 million square feet. That’s 100,000 square feet bigger than King of Prussia Mall.
The neighbors in tony Greenville are not pleased.
As he speaks about the project, New Castle County Councilman Robert Weiner pounds his kitchen table.
“The very existence of the entire Brandywine Valley is at stake, as is the future of the area being known as a nationally recognized tourism destination,” Weiner says. “It will eviscerate and destroy that which makes us unique.” Whump.
The $525 million project, proposed by Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania-based developer Stoltz Management Corp., would take 10 years to build. Advertised as “Wilmington’s new high-profile lifestyle center destination,” it offers retail stores, restaurants, a movie theater, a hotel, and well over 1 million square feet of office space and 700,000 square feet of residential space—700 units in high-rise apartments and condominiums.
Stoltz calls the development a “town center” that will provide an economic benefit by creating more than 5,500 jobs. The complex will include 29 buildings ranging from six to 11 stories, fountains and street furniture, in what Stoltz Realty COO Brad Coburn calls “a streetscape that will provide a pleasant pedestrian experience where people can stroll, shop, go to restaurants or to the movies.”
Stoltz purchased the site from the DuPont Co. for $90 million in September 2007. No tenants have signed up yet, but Coburn says Barley Mill is expected to attract high-caliber apparel, lifestyle and home furnishing stores, as well as white tablecloth restaurants.
“The concept of the town center is something that’s 50 years old,” Coburn says. “Barley Mill reflects smart growth principles, creating a friendly, pedestrian environment where people can live, work, play and shop. It will be a social gathering point that will foster a strong sense of community.”
Barley Mill Plaza is one of five developments Stoltz has proposed in New Castle County. The others are the $80 million, 43-acre Shoppes at Brandywine Valley at U.S. 202 and Beaver Valley Road; a $100 million retail and entertainment venue at the current Parkway Gravel site near Hare’s Corner; Greenville Center, a $19 million addition to the existing retail, commercial and office space at Del. 52 and Buck Road; and 20 Montchanin, a $7 million expansion of the Columbia Gas complex on Montchanin Road.
According to Tom Gailey of Stoltz, the Barley Mill Plaza plan is consistent with the 2007 New Castle County Comprehensive Plan, which supports building connected communities, in both new growth and redevelopment areas, in the form of pedestrian-friendly town centers or mixed-use multi-story buildings.
“By building connected communities, we focus not on a particular land use planning concept, but rather the idea of creating a sense of place that extends home to include places to work, learn, shop, play and more,” County Executive Chris Coons wrote in the introduction to the plan.
“The county is essentially saying that they want to steer growth in an attractive environment that mixes office, retail and residential space,” Gailey says. “With this proposal, aren’t we heading down that path with this project?”
Page 4: Noise in the Maestro’s Sanctuary, continued…
Over the past several months, however, hundreds of concerned county residents have let it be known that they think differently. At public meetings, on the Internet and through phone calls, they have mobilized to let both Stoltz and county officials know that, if constructed, Barley Mill Plaza would permanently damage the transportation infrastructure by bottling up the corridors of Del. 141, Del. 48 and Del. 52, the Tyler McConnell Bridge and Concord Pike.
On July 1, opponents and critics of the project formed an overflow audience at a public forum at the New Castle County Commons, before Stoltz, county departments and elected officials.
“The sheer size of the proposed expansion would completely overwhelm the existing transportation infrastructure,” said Chris McEvilly, a 30-year resident of Westover Hills Woods. Westhaven Civic Association president Richard Christopher expressed a desire that materials used in construction be consistent with the surrounding community. As for the proposed high-rise buildings, Wilmington resident Max Levy said, “I don’t want to live in New York City. I want to live in Wilmington, Delaware.”
The intensity of objection has been repeated in letters to DelDOT, to the New Castle County Department of Land Use, to county council and to legislators. Many elected officials have mobilized in opposition to the project.
Weiner calls the Barley Mill Plaza plan a “cannibalization” of local infrastructure and a reminder of how commercial development continues to damage the visual definition of a community. He has requested a traffic study of the Del. 141 corridor, I-95 from Newport to U.S. 202, and U.S. 202, Del. 52 and Del. 48 to the Pennsylvania line. The roads connect all of Stoltz’s planned projects.
Recent studies have found that the roads operate at 92 percent of capacity during peak hours. Daily level of service for the roads, graded A (least traffic) through F (most traffic) hovers in the C to F range. A 2006 DelDOT study revealed that Del. 141 from Del. 48 to the Tyler McConnell rates a D at peak hours. The bridge itself rates an F—total gridlock—during rush hour.
In addition to increasing traffic, Weiner says, Barley Mill Plaza could have a long-term detrimental economic effect on the community in general.
“AstraZeneca chose to locate in Wilmington because it saw that Wilmington was not in constant gridlock,” Weiner says. “If you give that small remaining traffic availability to low-paying retail jobs at the mall, then you lose the opportunity to bring in high-paying biomedical, technical or scientific jobs in the area. If the roads are in constant gridlock, then no large company would want to come here.”
There may be little reason to fear, however. Mixed-use village centers across the country, according to research, have been able to manage traffic adequately. One study found that mixed-use complexes generate far less vehicular traffic than conventional single-use projects.
The study found that 17.8 percent of trips ending in mixed-use developments started there, thus relieving pressure on external roads. Another 5.8 percent of trips to or from mixed-use developments were made on foot. Overall, 29 percent of the trips to and from mixed-use developments “put no strain on the external street network,” researchers found.
“Because the Barley Mill Plaza is a mixed-use development, traffic flow will be kept steady throughout the day, given that a large portion of customers using the plaza for commercial reasons will also work and live there,” Coburn says.
Not everyone is convinced.
Noise, and the promise of more noise, is what led Amado to step out from his role as conductor of the symphony to act as a concerned citizen. In an address at the July 1 hearing, Amado said, “A developer’s sense of social stewardship and responsibility dictates that the pursuit of profit should not interfere with the pre-existing life of the neighborhoods they influence and seek to improve.”
Amado called for the building of a barrier wall between Westover Hills and Del. 141, similar to the one that separates the Ronald McDonald House from routes 141 and 202. “They have the added advantage of not just blocking noise pollution, but of forcing polluting exhaust from thousands of cars upward instead of into our yards,” Amado said.
His proposal has become part of an ongoing dialogue between the community and Stoltz. Soon after the July 1 hearing, the initial plans submitted for Barley Mill Plaza were considered unacceptable by the New Castle County Department of Land Use. The department cited concerns about noise, lighting, traffic and community character.
Coburn acknowledges that seeking approval for a project like Barley Mill Plaza is a dialogue. There is no timeline for submitting a revised proposal to the Department of Land Use, he says. Stoltz will continue to meet with community leaders and regulatory groups to create a plan the county will accept.
“We’re at the front end of this,” says Coburn, who said the project, if approved, will take 10 years to complete. “The people of New Castle County need to know that we’re an open book on this project. Our goal is to continue our dialogue with the community.”
The mid-morning sky above Amado’s backyard has suddenly turned gray with the threat of rain. The conductor ponders his position.
“I am not against development, but is this proposed plan in a position to make our lives better, or is it being done at the expense of our quality of life?” he says. “Progress cannot be done in a way that harms anyone.”
Amado turns his back against the cacophony of Del. 141 and the threat of more noise. Carrying his sound meter, he and Lucy cross a small wooden bridge that connects his backyard to the woods, and head toward the quiet of indoors.