Earlier this week, demolition work began on one of the buildings at the old Tri-State Mall site near Claymont, raising hopes that new life may soon be breathed into a site that’s long been an eye sore.
But contributor Eileen Dallabrida reports what that new life ultimately looks like remains uncertain – and may not be what area residents are hoping for.
With the swing of a sledgehammer, developers took the first whack at redeveloping the long- dormant Tri-State Mall in Claymont on Wednesday, starting demolition of the decrepit Levitz Furniture Outlet.
What replaces Levitz, the moribund mall, and a small rundown strip center on the site will play an important role in the revitalization of Claymont, an historic river community and the boyhood home of President Joe Biden.
New York-based KPR Properties, the new owners of the 41-acre property, have yet to file plans with the county on how they will redevelop the strategic parcel, which has ready access to Interstate-95, I-495 and Naamans Road.
“We are thinking about everything under the sun,” said Stan Glantz, KPR’s vice president of development and construction. “At our heart, we are retail. But we also have industrial properties.”
Glantz said they are taking the extraordinary step of razing the Levitz building before plans for the development are in place as a symbol of support for the community. Part of the ceiling has fallen in and the previous operators were cited numerous times for code violations. Demo on the interior starts July 19; after that, the exterior will be knocked down.
“It’s been a blight on the community for quite some time. It will be great to see it demolished so we can make way for the future,” said John Cartier, the New Castle County councilman who represents Claymont.
Brett Saddler, director of the Claymont Renaissance Development Corporation (CRDC), is in favor of a mixed-use development that would capitalize on the new train station under construction nearby and compliment First State Crossing, a massive revitalization project underway at the 425-acre Evraz steel site. That plan includes a grocery store, retail and restaurant space, offices, and 1,200 townhomes and apartments with river views on the east side of Philadelphia Pike. Two industrial warehouses, an office building, and a self-service storage facility would be sited on the west side of the pike between Knollwood and Naamans Road.
“At Tri-State, the CRDC and the Claymont community would love to see attractive community amenities: new shops, recreational venues, restaurants,” he said.
A logistics center also is a possibility, officials and KPR representatives said. That reflects a growing trend in development in Delaware, which is sited midway between multiple population centers in the mid-Atlantic region. DART Container, the maker of Red Solo cups, is the first tenant in the 2 million-square-foot Delaware City Logistics Park, built on a 190-acre parcel between the Delaware City refinery and Route 7. In Bear, DOT Foods opened a 200,000-square-foot facility on what was previously a farm. The former General Motors plant on Boxwood Road is the new home of a 3.7 million-square foot Amazon logistics warehouse.
The growth of logistics centers also is a reflection in a shift in the way consumers shop, ordering online for home delivery instead of visiting brick-and-mortar stores. That trend was hastened by the pandemic, when only stores selling essential goods were permitted to operate during shelter-at-home orders.
“Commercial retail centers of all stripes, with very few exceptions, are under stress because ordering online has become the consumer preference,” Cartier said.
Observers waxed nostalgic about Tri-State’s past as they donned grey hardhats embellished with two logos: KPR on one side and a phoenix, the symbol of Claymont’s rebirth, on the other.
Larry Tarabicos, the land use attorney representing KPR, remembered going to the movies at the mall and shopping for furniture with his mother.
“She still lives right down the road. She has lived there for 62 years,” he said.
Candace Roseo, who grew up nearby, said she would like to see restaurants and places where people can enjoy recreation as part of the development.
Saddler recalled shopping for school clothes at Wilmington Dry Goods, one of the early anchor stores, with his mother and grandmother.
“Everybody who grew up in Claymont has memories of Tri-State Mall. They have been waiting for a long time for something good to happen here,” he said.
Whatever the plan is, CRDC plans to work with the developers and government to achieve the best outcome possible.
“We understand that Katz properties may have other plans for the site and the CRDC stands ready to work with them and advocate for the community for a quality investment,” Saddler said.
Built in 1967, the center catered to working class consumers and was anchored, variously, by Value City, Kmart, and Burlington Coat Factory. The mall’s fortunes waned along with some of its major tenants. Value City went out of business in 2008, closing all its stores. Kmart went dark in 2014, shuttering underperforming stores as the retailer declined. Burlington, the last remaining anchor, relocated to Route 202 in North Wilmington in 2017.
A Yelp review dated June 30, 2013, summed up the center’s decline. “Awful excuse for a strip mall. Run-down Kmart and a few struggling stores. YUCK.”
Today, the only sign of retail life is a faded strip center across a mostly empty parking lot from Levitz. Its tenants include a liquor store, a pawn shop, a nail salon, a few indie clothing stores, a laundromat, and a check-cashing service.
Saddler said Tri-State’s revitalization benefits people in Delaware beyond Claymont because developing an existing site helps to preserve New Castle County’s diminishing green spaces.
“As a native Delawarean, I believe strongly that we need to revitalize these older areas. We are running out of soybean fields to build on,” he said.
Cartier said Tri-State offers the new buyers access to existing roads and utilities without impinging on open land.
“It’s much better to repurpose a site that already has been developed and has some infrastructure than to build on greenspaces,” he said.
State Sen. Sarah McBride (D-Claymont) said she is in favor of a plan that will bring jobs to the site, “jobs with good benefits.”
KPR specializes in primary and secondary markets on the East Coast, specifically walkable, power centers of 75,000 square feet or more anchored by grocery stores and industrial properties, including logistics centers. The company is in acquisition mode, recently spending $47 million for 310,000 square feet of refrigerated industrial space in southern New Hampshire and $32.3 million for 135,090-square-foot Concordia Shopping Center in Monroe Township, New Jersey. A transaction recorded in June between subsidiaries of the buyer and seller lists the Tri-State sale price at $12.5 million.
Before Tri-State, KPR’s sole holding in Delaware was Rite Aid Plaza in Dover, which consists of a stand-alone 10,908-square-foot drug store. Elsewhere in the region, the company owns six centers in Pennsylvania and four in Maryland.