Concerns about increased traffic, more parking issues and complications associated with the placement of commercial properties amid residential areas have activated the residents into fighting for what they consider to be the quality of their neighborhood’s life.
They voiced their concerns at a community meeting last night at Wilmington Friends.
As one resident put it, “I don’t think I know of any reason why anyone in Alapocas would want to see this thing go forward.” Another man said, “Right now, in the neighborhood, they’re ready to go nuclear.”
Comments like these dominated Tuesday’s meeting between Wilmington Friends School (WFS) officials and the approximately 100 Alapocas residents who expressed frustration, anger and disapproval about the recently announced plans.
In addition to the sale of the WFS Lower School property to Incyte, the plans include using the proceeds of the sale to build a new Lower School near the Middle School and Upper School on the main part of campus, complete other capital improvements and grow the WFS endowment – all by the time Friends celebrates its 275th anniversary in 2023.
Although the sales agreement is considered to be in its final form, both sides have a number of contingencies that must be met before the transaction can reach its projected closing date in 2021.
School officials stressed multiple times on Tuesday that the Alapocas Maintenance Organization would represent resident concerns and that its vote regarding the two proposed campus plans – “A” and “B,” drawings of which were displayed during the session – would not only determine how the campus would look and operate in the future but if the sale to Incyte would even be the means to achieve those changes.
“It’s just like selling a house: If you don’t go to closing, there is no sale,” said Head of School Ken Aldridge, who also is an Alapocas resident. “If the Alapocas Maintenance Organization votes ‘no,’ Friends’ contingency is not satisfied, and the contract will go away.”
This statement reiterated a point make in an Oct. 11 letter sent to stakeholders by Aldridge and WFS Board of Trustees clerk Susan Kelley. The letter stated that several contingencies must be met by both the school and Incyte before a sale would proceed. These include zoning requirements, traffic studies and community input by the Alapocas residents and other stakeholders.
If all contingencies cannot be met, the letter said, “the Board will consider other options” for updating its campus.
According to Aldridge, goals of the sale and campus revitalization include WFS meeting “the 21st century needs of the educational experience” and creating “a unified campus for increased efficiency, flexibility and community.”
Trustee Chris Buccini added that affording private school either wholly or in part has become more challenging for many families in recent years, and an even larger endowment would help “stop tuition increasing 3 percent every year” and make WFS “deeply accessible to people of all income brackets.”
Buccini added, “We have a fiduciary responsibility for the twelfth oldest school in America. There was not a Board meeting that has gone on that there wasn’t a deep, deep concern for the Alapocas community — I would say maybe even more so than the students, who our real fiduciary should be… But the last thing any of us want to do is put the school in a position of really upsetting and hurting people in this neighborhood.”
Some residents voiced a skeptical reaction to Buccini’s description of the proposed visual landscape. He said that the Board believes that “there is nothing Incyte can build that would be seen from the sports fields.”
He added that sports are ‘very important at Wilmington Friends’ and that the area around the sports facilities would provide “a massive buffer that we would never sell. So we really do not believe that what happens here except for traffic will have an effect on the neighborhood.”
That aspect of the deal — exactly what Incyte would build — is of the the major concerns to residents. Only sketches of the lower school campus have been shared with the community.
Tuesday’s two-hour meeting took place in the WFS Library Commons and was the fourth of four individual sessions held to address questions and concerns from specific cohorts, including Lower School parents, Middle School/Upper School parents and alumni and other constituents. Aldridge began the meeting by dispelling thoughts that the proposed plans were linked to budget problems.
“The school is financially sound,” he said. “We have no debt whatsoever on our books … healthy reserves … stable enrollment…. We feel strongly that this (proposal) is coming from a position of strength, not a position of weakness.”
But before Aldridge could get much further into the meeting’s set agenda – focusing on timelines and other details for the improvements – questions and comments started hurtling toward him. As more than one attendee phrased it, it was like the school and its leadership had “walked into a buzzsaw.”
Concerns included potential traffic and road-access issues created by having a new commercial site in the neighborhood and increased morning and afternoon traffic at the school’s main campus, which would house all three divisions.
Ecological and sustainability issues also were raised, since the stands of trees and open green space currently occupying much of the Lower School property could disappear if Incyte builds there.
A woman who identified herself as having three children in lower and middle school directed her question to the Board of Trustees, which elicited a thunderous applause from the crowd. “Can you explain to me why you think this is good for the neighborhood? I’m thinking, you talked about sustainability, but what about the sustainability of the neighborhood when Incyte falls or they sell the land to someone else? Like, if you are thinking that far ahead for the school, what about the community surrounding it?”
Also, the lower school’s “outdoor classroom,” which residents in the community say they have enjoyed, would no longer exist. Some residents also questioned potential impact on local health and the environment, since Incyte manufactures pharmaceuticals, and a potential change in the character of the neighborhood, since the visual charm of Alapocas is one of its biggest attractions.
One concerned resident said, “I was drawn to this neighborhood because of Friends — because of the community that we feel here. You can understand why we have a lot of strong emotions about this. You can’t recreate this [residential community] anywhere else in Delaware. So we really want you to hear us.
She continued, “I think all of us want what’s best for Friends, and all of us want what’s best for this neighborhood. But I don’t think that what we’re hearing so far are any assurances from you that make me feel secure that you’re going to look out for us. Is there a definite, ‘We’re not selling this unless this, this and this get looked at?’ I think that’s what these people want to hear. I’m invested in my house – I want to die in my house, when I’m really old. I just want you to understand that that’s where this is coming from. And so far, I’m not hearing that, ‘We are going to address your concerns.’”
Most distressing to residents, however, was “not knowing:” that school officials were considering such a sale; what Incyte’s specifically intends for the property; and how those intentions will look, function and affect their day-to-day lives. Applause broke out frequently as one resident or another made a point or expressed an opinion that many of them shared.
Many residents came to the meeting with the belief that the sale was a “fait accompli” and that asking about resident concerns at this point served no purpose.
Others criticized the segmented nature of the stakeholder meetings as a tactic to “divide and conquer” any opposition while others scoffed when school officials said they aimed to be transparent about the plans – especially when a resident asked Aldridge if officials would share the actual sales agreement document with residents and he answered that he was “not at liberty” to do so.
Trustee Susan Janes-Johnson, who was in the audience along with several other Board members, spoke up to say that the segmented meetings had been planned with the best of intentions and intended to give each constituency the opportunity to “have a meeting to discuss what’s important” to them.
She also stated that the process of coming to the sales agreement occurred under a non-disclosure agreement required by Incyte.
“It’s important for everyone in this room to understand that we were having legal discussions about a commercial transaction that we couldn’t share,” Janes-Johnson said. “So when we say we’re trying to be transparent, I think we can certainly understand why you feel like, ‘Hey, you’ve been talking about this for a while. Why are we just finding out now?’”
As residents finished voicing their concerns and taking in responses from school officials, several audience members urged the group to take additional action. This included attending – en masse – zoning board and other meetings that would affect Incyte’s ability to move forward with its plans. Other suggestions helping to ensure everyone in the neighborhood was aware of upcoming meetings and actions and including contacting government representatives individually.
Among those in the audience was Christopher Counihan, legislative aide to District 2 New Castle County Councilperson Dee Durham. Following up with us today, Durham said, “There are several contingencies that must be met before the sale is finalized. I will be listening very carefully to the community for feedback and I have already begun hearing about their concerns. I have encouraged the school and the residents to continue the dialog to see if all of their concerns can be addressed.”
The next meetings between WFS officials and the stakeholders also will take place in the Library Commons and are scheduled as follows:
- Nov. 12: Lower School parents
- Nov. 14: Middle School/Upper School parents
- Nov. 21: Alapocas residents
Aldridge asked that anyone planning to attend one or more of these sessions bring any additional “specific ideas and considerations” on index cards. Those unable to attend any of the meetings are invited to send their questions or feedback to [email protected].
“When we say we want to partner with you and we want your input, that is genuine,” Aldridge said. “It’s not window dressing.”