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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Rebuilding Delaware: Reimagining Urban and Suburban Spaces

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Michael Fleming
Michael Fleming
Wilmington resident Michael Fleming is a marketing and communications executive.

This is the third installment of a four-part series examining Delaware’s economic and social challenges and opportunities to secure the state’s future. Read the first and second here.

For reasons unknown, despite having one of the tiniest footprints of any state, our approach to land use in Delaware has never been a signal priority and its disposition is too regularly relegated to unelected bureaucrats and creative development attorneys.  Not surprisingly, this inattention has come with a serious price: Mismanagement, corruption, waste, traffic and seas of parking lots awash in flotillas of strip malls.

The Stoltz-Barley Mill debacle is Exhibit A[i]. No recent example demonstrates more clearly the dereliction of state and county leaders when it comes to land-use planning and the baffling “parking lot” mentality they seem to passively embrace. With a comprehensive development strategy in place, this critical and prime-sited parcel could have become a world-class community jewel, a fashionable, functional, mixed-use project bringing the state positive national attention (with all attendant economic benefits). Instead, that lack of political leadership has left it to the courts to address glaring, embarrassing deficiencies in our land-use and traffic-management policies brought to light by the ill-fated project.

Our state is gifted with a natural landscape and location other states would die for – incredibly beautiful rolling hills, thousands of acres of rich farmland and fantastic beaches. They also ain’t making any more of this tiny plot. So every decision made will have a major, lasting impact on both our economic prospects and quality of life. It obviously needs to be a priority.

On these pages, Brian DiSabatino made a powerful case for seriously raising our game in this area, pointing out the huge upside of “place-based” economic development. He wrote:

Maybe in addition to trying to find great employers, we ought to be spending our time and treasure creating economic development through envisioning great places…

…Delaware has a mixture of A) great places, B) good places that could be great, C) really weak places that could stand for revitalization and D) new places and developments that need to be inspired to become great…let me ask,“How many places in Delaware would someone from Nebraska come to visit because they wanted something fun to do?” and “How many places would the next Mark Zuckerberg find cool enough to locate the next Facebook?” and “How many great places is Delaware supposed to have? Do we have a limit?”

The results of poor planning are all-too apparent: The sprawling, traffic-clogged gauntlet of outlets and strip malls along Rte. 1 en route to Rehoboth; the unoriginal, uninspired big box architecture at the Wilmington waterfront where we’ve inexplicably plunked Concord Pike-type stand-alone restaurants, movie theatres and “shops” amid vast parking lots.

We need an imaginative, far-sighted approach to planning that considers how society and business will be changing in the coming decades and that focuses on the “places” with the potential to be “great.” How are people going to be living, working, transported? What can we adopt from the best of dynamic mixed-use and pedestrian-friendly developments across the country and world that are attracting creative, ambitious young people? Think about the possibilities of LOMA, an area in the heart of our most important city, steps from the Wilmington train station (case in point re: bad planning: Ever tried to do the “frogger” walk from the train to Lower Market? We make it about as difficult as possible for travelers to access our city) and ripe for supercharged revitalization as a new urban mecca of business, retail, residential, cultural attractions, etc. Layer on top of that tax and other incentives that draw new start-ups and reward successful risk takers and you have a thriving firmament at our city’s base.

The state must take the lead on intergovernmental planning between local and statewide authorities to ensure we are creating memorable, world-class, livable, healthy places with compelling architecture and exciting design. This will surely distinguish the state and spawn extraordinary economic expansion.

Next: Transforming Education


[i] The Tigani-DelDOT mess is a close second.

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Latest News

Fishing tournaments are roaring back across the First State

For some participants, it’s about comradery that comes with tournaments. For others, it's about winning.

DSU cancels $750,000 in debt for 200 graduating seniors

The Historically Black College and University will use federal COVID-19 money to pay for move.

4 quick takeaways on Tuesday’s school board votes

The most prominent newcomer after Tuesday’s elections is Kim Stock, the 2021 Delaware Teacher of the Year.
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