Developer ready to ramp up revised plan for former Claymont Steel site
[This story was originally published by Delaware Public Media.]
About 4 and a-half years ago, St. Louis-based Commercial Development Company (CDC) purchased the former Evraz Claymont Steel property, and offered some ambitious plans to remake the site.
Since then, little more has been heard about plans for the site. But Contributor Larry Nagengast reports that is about to change.
Four and a half years after it purchased the former Evraz Claymont Steel property, the St. Louis-based Commercial Development Company (CDC) has submitted its first plans for redeveloping a portion of the 425-acre site to the New Castle County Land Use Department.
The 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 within the wedge formed by Philadelphia Pike, Interstate 495 and the Amtrak rail line. The office park would be situated across a new roadway from the new Claymont train station, now under construction on a 15-acre site donated by CDC.
Plans for the rest of the site, known as First State Crossing, will be rolled out gradually. The next portion, a townhouse and apartment community between the Amtrak line and the Delaware River, should be filed with the county early next year, says Steven Collins, CDC executive vice president. The residential piece replaces a logistics center that could have had rail, sea and highway access that was part of the initial concept. Other segments will include more office space as well as retail, light industrial uses and a hotel.
When CDC announced its original plans, a Claymont historian touted the proposal as “the biggest thing here in 100 years” – which lined up almost perfectly with the construction of the first mill in Claymont by the Worth Steel Co. in 1917.
Collins is hopeful that the county will grant the necessary approvals for the office park project within six months so construction can begin during the second half of next year.
“It could be done within six months, but that would be tight,” says Richard E. Hall, general manager of the Land Use Department. “With a priority project, we can move as fast as the development team can move.”
This phase of the redevelopment process may move more quickly because it does not require a rezoning, according to county officials. The former steel mill property is zoned HI (heavy industrial) and office parks are permitted within that classification. However, CDC will have to apply to the county’s Board of Adjustment for a special use permit to build the parking garage.
Claymont area residents will get a first look at the office park plan, and learn more from CDC about the rest of the project, at the next meeting of the Claymont Renaissance Development Corporation, set for 6 p.m. Dec. 3 in the Crowne Plaza Hotel, 630 Naamans Road. Brett Saddler, CRDC executive director, says the meeting will also include updates on train station construction and broader redevelopment issues, including Tri-State Mall and creation of new hiking and walking trails in the area.
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.
John Cartier, the New Castle County councilman whose district includes Claymont, says that completion of the new train station, scheduled for the first quarter of 2022, will accelerate development of First State Crossing. Saddler predicts that the rush will come sooner – whenever CDC announces its primary tenant for the office park.
Potentially the most intriguing piece of the redevelopment initiative will be the residential component. Currently CDC is thinking about a 1,200-unit project, divided almost evenly between townhouses and apartments. A community of that size would be about 40 percent larger than the popular and still growing Darley Green, whose 550 townhouses and 280 apartment units have been built in the last decade over the ruins of the demolished Brookview Apartments. According to Realtor.com, the median price for townhouses at Darley Green is $279,900.
The residential piece wasn’t contemplated when CDC acquired the Evraz site. At the time, it planned to use an existing riverfront bulkhead as the starting point for a shipping facility, creating a logistics hub that would also take advantage of the rail line and the interchanges that join Interstate 95 and Interstate 495. However, changing circumstances prompted CDC to scrap that concept.
In 2018, the Diamond State Port Corporation 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.
That’s just as well, says Saddler, noting the success of Darley Green and describing residential as “the highest and best use” of the property and consistent with the master plan for north Claymont.
CDC has lined up two developers for the residential segment – Setting Properties of Montchanin and Rockwell Development of Media, Pennsylvania.
Collins believes the project will be more attractive than Darley Green since it will be on the river, a short walk to the train station and linked to an extensive trail network.
Saddler believes the residential units, 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, Pennsylvania.
But there are several issues that may well have to be resolved as CDC seeks the required rezoning for the apartments and townhouses. New roadways will have to be built to the proposed site, and while Collins is thinking of “almost a gated community,” Saddler does not want any limitations on access to the site. Cartier and Saddler would also like to see some space in that area carved out for a small marina and one or more restaurants.
“This is a rezoning situation. We’re talking about the art of the deal,” Cartier says.
Given the importance of the entire project to Claymont, “we’ve only got one chance to do this right,” Saddler adds.
The residential rezoning could be time consuming, perhaps taking 18 months to two years, Cartier says.
“The county council is in the driver’s seat here,” he adds, expressing a preference for mixed use development.
Cartier and Saddler anticipate the combination of a new train station, the office park and added residential bringing significant change to Claymont, whose 19th-century reputation as a vacation getaway for Philadelphians was eclipsed by its transformation into an industrial community.
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 train to head for their jobs in Philadelphia and financial professionals riding the southbound rails to work in the office park.
“We’ve been looking for a transformative project,” adds Hall, the county’s Land Use head. “We’re excited about this.”
Moving beyond the first two phases, it’s not clear how long the rest of the redevelopment will take. The CDC concept plan shows a new roadway stretching from the new train station northwest across Philadelphia Pike and extending to Naamans Road, ending opposite Tri-State Mall. Along that roadway is an array of structures – more office space, two retail complexes and two areas labeled as industrial.
Collins says he has begun talking with prospective industrial tenants, but acknowledges that it will be “a year or so” before any plans are submitted to the county.
When those plans are submitted, Saddler expects plenty of discussion, no matter whether the component requires only a review by the Land Use Department or a more extensive rezoning process that ends with a county council vote.
Use and placement of the buildings, traffic patterns, completing a network of trails and pedestrian walkways – all these items will be discussed, he says.
As plans for First State Crossing progress, interrelated Claymont issues may impact the discussion. 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.
Major redevelopment plans take time. For proof, one needs to look only as far as the Wilmington Riverfront, still evolving a quarter-century after the construction of Frawley Stadium.
“I’ve seen these things happen before. They tend to come in digestible chunks, but it’s hard to say how long it would take,” says Hall, who spent eight years as Maryland’s secretary of planning before coming to New Castle County three years ago. “It might take longer than a lot of people want it to take, but it’s important that we do these things right.
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