Big developments are afoot in the quiet northern New Castle County community: an office park, parking garage, new train station, and the prospect of a 1,200-unit townhouse and apartment project
When the Commercial Development Company purchased the 425-acre Evraz Claymont Steel property nearly five years ago, a local historian touted the deal as “the biggest thing here in 100 years”—comparing it to the Worth Steel Co. constructing the original mill on the north side of the community in 1917.
Now CDC is rolling out more details of its project, called First State Crossing, submitting plans to the New Castle County Land Use Department that include an office park and parking garage to be built adjacent to the new Claymont train station, now under construction.
The offices are hardly a surprise. Nor are the commercial and light industrial buildings that are likely to be built in the wedge bounded by Philadelphia Pike, Naamans Road and Interstate 495.
But the big buzz surrounds the prospect of a 1,200-unit townhouse and apartment project on the east side of the Amtrak rail line, overlooking the Delaware River.
If built, that community, dubbed Riverview @ First State Crossing, would be roughly 40 percent larger than the 830-unit Darley Green complex that has been the focal point of Claymont’s ongoing revitalization. And it could trump Darley Green in two key respects: the promise of riverfront views and a short walk to the train station, making for an easy commute to downtown Philadelphia. In fact, the caption of a photo used to depict the project for a Claymont community meeting in December described it as “Darley Green plus.”
With all its pieces, the project is what Richard E. Hall, general manager of New Castle County’s Land Use Department, calls “transformative.” While CDC would like the go-ahead from the county by late spring so it could start some construction by summer, the pace of the approvals will depend on how well Hall’s staff and CDC’s representatives work together. Some parts of First State Crossing—those that are already permitted under the old steel mill’s heavy industrial zoning—will move faster than others. The residential component will take longer because that will require rezoning.
“It might take longer than a lot of people want it to take, but it’s important that we do these things right,” Hall says.
Once the redevelopment gets started, the work will take about 10 years, and possibly more, depending on the economy and the real estate market, says Stephen Collins, CDC executive vice president.
The residential piece wasn’t part of CDC’s original plan. The company, which is based in St. Louis and focuses on redeveloping industrial brownfield sites, like Sparrows Point in Baltimore, at first wanted to use that area along the river for a logistics center —a massive warehousing and distribution space that would take advantage of easy access to rail lines, interstate highways and the Delaware river.
But reality got in the way.
In 2018, the Diamond State Port Corp. granted Gulftainer USA the rights to operate and develop the Port of Wilmington for 50 years, including developing a port at the former DuPont Edge Moor plant between Claymont and Wilmington, a property Diamond State had acquired in 2016.
In addition, CDC’s internal study concluded that two underpasses near the site were too low to handle anticipated truck traffic and easements could not be worked out with the owners of industrial sites just over the state line in Pennsylvania. “The cost of development and the estimated demand didn’t justify the development,” Collins says.
Residential Developers Added
That’s fine with Brett Saddler, executive director of the Claymont Renaissance Development Corp., who points to the success of Darley Green and describes residential as “the highest and best use” of the property and consistent with the master plan for north Claymont.
To handle the residential portion of the project, CDC has added two regional residential developers to its team—Setting Properties of Montchanin and Rockwell Development of Media, Pa.
“We think the location is second to none—to be on the water in such a convenient location,” says Rockwell owner Greg Lingo. Details of the residential community won’t be worked out until initial approvals are given by New Castle County, but current thinking is to have about a 50-50 mix of townhouse and apartment units. Trailways and a park will be included in the plan, Lingo says.
Saddler believes the apartments and townhouses, especially at the upper levels, will have great views—the river to the east, the Wilmington skyline to the south and the rolling Brandywine hills to the west. “When you design the buildings, you just have to make sure that your big balconies don’t face Sunoco,” the oil refinery to the north in Marcus Hook, Pa.
In addition, Collins says CDC is willing to set aside waterfront acreage if the state would like to put a marina on site. Saddler is hoping there’s also room for a restaurant or two in the area.
Demand for More Amenities
Collins says there will be at least two roads leading into the residential area – one that would link it to the new train station, and another running east from Philadelphia Pike toward the river, just south of Naamans Road.
“It’s a lot of units, a lot of people,” says Claymont resident Phil Barnes, a CRDC board member. “but overall, it’s a good idea,” in part because the growth of Claymont’s population will trigger a demand for more amenities that would benefit the entire community. Many of those amenities, like retail space and restaurants, are baked into CDC’s plan.
As intriguing as the residential part of the project might be, the office park comes first, coinciding with construction of Claymont’s long-sought new train station, expected to open in the first quarter of 2022.
CDC’s proposal calls for construction of two office buildings, totaling nearly 275,000 square feet, and a three-story, 460-space parking garage in an area north of Interstate 495 between Philadelphia Pike and the Amtrak rail line. The office park would be situated just west of the new train station along a new roadway, tentatively named Transit Center Boulevard, that would be built from Philadelphia Pike to the station.
Collins says CDC has been negotiating with multiple businesses—both from out of state and with Delaware operations—interested in leasing office space. He said construction would not begin until a lease is signed. People familiar with the project anticipate that the prime tenant will be a financial services business interested in expanding and consolidating its Delaware operations.
Adding Energy To Redevelopment
Saddler and John Cartier, the New Castle County councilman whose district includes Claymont, believe the combination of the new train station and the adjacent business park will accelerate the development of First State Crossing and add further energy to Claymont’s ongoing redevelopment.
The redevelopment they picture sees the train station, currently the busiest commuter rail stop in the state, bustling with two-way traffic—millennials walking to the station to head for their jobs in Philadelphia and financial professionals riding the southbound rails to work in the office park.
“For the community, any kind of big investment is significant,” Barnes says, describing the station as “a shiny new toy that makes a statement.”
Barnes’ wife, Lee Roueche, had been one of those Claymont-Philadelphia commuters. Now she and her husband take the train in the opposite direction, going to Newark each morning for their jobs at the University of Delaware.
“Taking the train is easy, to Philadelphia or to Newark,” Roueche says.
Barnes is looking forward to the new station’s completion, as it would replace one that is located on a bend in the tracks, has small waiting areas that offer limited protection in bad weather and requires passengers to step up and down when boarding or leaving the train. “When you get on or off, because the train stops on a bend, you’re leaning sideways like you’re on a ship,” Barnes says.
John Sisson, CEO of the Delaware Transit Corp., says he expects commuter rail ridership to increase when the new station opens, with a parking garage and a larger surface lot making the site more appealing to Brandywine Hundred residents headed to either Philadelphia or Newark. He notes that the Newark train station, now being upgraded, is adjacent to the university’s STAR campus, which is rapidly becoming a technology and healthcare employment hub.
Sisson doesn’t expect the Claymont station to draw passengers away from the Wilmington Amtrak station because about half of the daily commuters who use the Wilmington station are working in jobs downtown.
Thus far, CDC has presented the county with preliminary plans for the offices and parking garage closest to the train station, with plans for the residential community expected to be sent to the county later this year, Collins says.
Details on the remaining portions of the revitalization should be delivered to the county in 2021. Other components of CDC’s master plan include:
On the south side of Naamans Road, east of Interstate 95, opposite Tri-State Mall: a nine-story office building with a seven-level parking deck, plus a retail strip, restaurant and pharmacy.
On the west side of Philadelphia Pike, between Knollwood and Naamans Road: two industrial warehouses, an office building and a self-service storage facility.
On the east side of Philadelphia Pike, between Interstate 495 and Naamans Road: a mixed-use area that would include a grocery store, restaurant, retail and restaurant space, offices and apartments.
CDC also plans to include an extensive system of trails for walking and bicycling throughout the residential and commercial areas.
Most of the needed roadway improvements along Philadelphia Pike and into the office park next to the train station will be paid for by the Delaware Transit Corp. as part of the deal made when CDC donated 15 acres of the Evraz site for development of the train station, Collins says. CDC would be responsible for improvements on Naamans Road.
As plans for First State Crossing progress, interrelated Claymont issues may impact the discussion, Saddler says. Those items, he says, include the redevelopment of the deteriorating Tri-State Mall in the community’s northwest corner, and the fate of the current train station in the southeast corner, which could serve as a trailhead for Greenways along the river leading to Fox Point State Park.
Saddler emphasizes the importance of the entire project to Claymont, adding, “we’ve only got one chance to do this right.”