As a candidate for local office during the summer of 2008, thumping door-to-door across the beautiful 4th Senate District (consisting of Brandywine Hundred, Greenville and Hockessin), one of the hottest issues among voters was the then newly-announced plan by the Stoltz real estate organization to significantly expand construction on several key parcels of land. Most notable, of course, was a proposed 2.8 million square foot build-out of the Du Pont Company office facility at the corner of 141 and Lancaster Pike known as Barley Mill Plaza – a plan now indelibly compared to the massive King of Prussia Mall twenty miles to our north.
Three years and countless public hearings, news reports, op/eds and much political wrangling later, it appears this contentious issue will come to a dénouement of sorts before New Castle County Council on Tuesday night. (In addition to first Chad Livengood and then Adam Taylor’s continued great work in the News Journal, the issue has also been addressed multiple times on this site.)
By way of disclosure, I should acknowledge having had some involvement in the inception of CRG – Citizens for Responsible Growth – a truly grass-roots organization that has worked mightily to arrive at the best possible outcome for the community. And like so many others in this small town, I’m privileged to know and respect several of the leading actors on all sides of this issue.
Stepping back from the specifics of the decision now before Council, and details of the proposals and counter proposals by both CRG and its now-rival Save Our County, one can only be saddened at how this controversy has become so confusing, contentious and divisive. Accountability for that unfortunate result must lay at the feet of two principals in this sorry drama: the Stoltz organization and the politicians and professionals responsible for land planning – and that goes for both our county and state government, past and present.
In many respects, the sprawling real estate conglomerate headed by former Delawarean Keith Stoltz is doing just what a commercial organization is compelled by its very nature – and investors – to do: maximize return on precious investment. That is appropriate and expected.
Yet the rank cynicism exhibited by Stoltz throughout this process – particularly in the early-going – is the kind of behavior that can unfairly give developers a bad name. Cynicism in their smug initial dismissal of the community uproar over their plans. Cynicism in their stubborn insistence on being represented by the wife of then-Council President Paul Clark, a bald-faced conflict of interest if ever there’s been one (which resulted in Clark’s rebuke with the special election of Tom Kovach as Council President in February). And cynicism in their strategy of forcing unrelated concessions in negotiating a path forward for Barley Mill, a scheme that could only result in dividing a community uniformly opposed to their absurd and over-reaching original plans.
There has always been something odd an ill-considered about the Stoltz organization’s apparent failure to understand the connection between their positive financial prospects and having a measure of goodwill and support in the community in which they operate. It reflects the tone-deafness of an organization that doesn’t fully appreciate its own power and the unique responsibility that comes with literally owning a significant part of our tiny state – a curious lack of self-awareness and even confidence. Stoltz has missed a golden opportunity to engage and inspire the community and body politic by doing something truly magnificent and transformational at Barley Mill at a time when that kind of leadership is exactly what is needed for our economy and common good.
By offering a creative, win-win proposal from the start, Stoltz could have been the toast of the town, a Fisker or Bloom Energy, bathed in press conference glory. (Although it should be said, to their credit, so far as I’m aware they are not the beneficiaries of any public money, other than of course the infrastructure that will sustain their development.) Instead they have clumsily antagonized and alienated the very community where they aim to do business.
So it is left to our government officials – elected politicians and professional bureaucrats – to ensure the public good is at last ensured. Yet, at the risk of replaying a hackneyed talking point, our government has blundered badly, allowing long-neglected deficiencies and conflicts within the land planning process to fester and let them arrive again and again at a dangerous head.
New Castle County Government, from the Executive to Council to the planning department, has collectively been kicking a can down the street for far too long, fecklessly refusing to get their act together and address what is ultimately one of their most important priorities: strategically managing development and infrastructure in a way that promotes both sustainable business growth as well as a optimum quality of life. (An exception is Councilman Bob Weiner, who has consistently been an advocate for smart growth policies.)
The state’s key agency, DelDOT, hasn’t been much better, refusing to play a meaningful or productive role in the Barley Mill debacle, demonstrating an utter and embarrassing disconnect with the realities of the New Castle County zoning process.
Barley Mill Plaza’s 92 acres are perched at a critical gateway to both the City of Wilmington and the scenic and historic Brandywine Valley, and 141/48 is already a traffic chokepoint. What happens at that site will impact this community for generations.
Thank goodness both CRG and Save our County understand this. Thank goodness so many of our fellow citizens have devoted thousands and thousands of hours studying this matter, investing their own money and offering constructive solutions.
But how sad and shameful they have not been better served by their government and those who would seek their commerce. Regardless of Tuesday night’s decision, these neighbors have shown that good people still care, and real leadership still exists. And we should all thank them for their extraordinary efforts.