Builder Brian DiSabatino, fourth-generation boss of Wilmington's EDiS Co., says he expects to start work this year on the first of seven "mixed-use villages," replacing 2,000 acres of corn and soybean fields, at what he and his partners call the Town of Whitehall, 12 minutes south of I-95 in Delaware.
There have been other big plans for this ground. It was shopped as a nuclear power plant site, and for an Intel computer-chip factory. But "New Urbanist" communities, with curbside stores, offices, and charter schools, are what the ground's owner, the $125 million-asset Welfare Foundation, decided will pay best, pending final approvals from the county council.
Welfare is one of the charities started by the late DuPont Co. boss Pierre S. du Pont (his greenhouses and lawn are Longwood Gardens) with a slice of the fabulous fortune he made as a war contractor and modernizer of the family industrial group and its corporate cousin, General Motors.
"It's entirely different from anything done before in Delaware: Everything you need will be in a five-minute walking distance," Welfare president Peter Morrow told me. (Or not quite unprecedented: DiSabatino says each village will be the size of Old New Castle, the walkable brick 18th-century ex-capital of Delaware.)
The new towns, housing 10,000 in time, will be "kind of like Celebration in Disney World," with townhouses, apartments, mansion lots, and vibes recalling West Chester, or Wilmington's Trolley Square, DiSabatino added. It's what buyers want: "living and working in the same place." There are approvals for more than a million square feet of office space nearby.
Modern villages don't always grow as advertised. Up in Claymont, the county in the mid-2000s approved plans to demolish the Brookview project, where Vice President Biden briefly lived as a boy, to build Darley Green village.
The plan called for 1,200 townhouses, a smatter of low-income housing, blocks of curbside stores, and offices - all close to the Claymont SEPTA rail station and I-95.
The government built culverts and an airy library. But the recession slowed townhouse construction to maybe 20 a year. A "friendly foreclosure" yielded part of the property to another developer, who wants to replace some of the unbuilt structures with several hundred market-rate apartments.
The revised plan was backed by county councilman John Cartier and ratified, but has since drawn a second look from colleague Bob Weiner. The change to more "upscale" apartments and fewer stores "gutted" the walkable-village vision, Weiner wrote in an open letter.
Cartier says the plan still leaves room for four 21/2-story storefront buildings on Philadelphia Pike. Better the revised plan, he concludes, than today's muddy demolition site.