New train station, warehouse projects mark surge in Claymont redevelopment progress
For years, Claymont residents have waited to see real progress in the redevelopment of the old Claymont Steel site and some of the surrounding area.
Over time, plans were delayed and changed, but now some pieces are actually springing to life with others expected to follow soon.
This week, contributor Larry Nagengast reports on where efforts to remake a large portion of Claymont stand.
As in the legend of the phoenix, Delaware’s northeastern corner is showing tangible evidence of its rebirth, rising from the rubble of the steel mill that had dominated its landscape for nearly a century.
Claymont’s long awaited commuter rail station – an $82.7 million project on the east side of Philadelphia Pike – will be dedicated on Nov. 27, with SEPTA trains scheduled to begin stopping there on Dec. 4.
Across the pike, a 358,000-square-foot distribution center and warehouse is ready to open. To the west of the warehouse, with an entrance off Naamans Road, a 165,000-square-foot cold-storage warehouse is in the early stages of construction. On the north side of Naamans Road, most of the former Tri-State Mall has been demolished and another warehouse will soon rise in its place.
“It’s truly amazing to see those large buildings coming out of the ground so quickly,” says the Claymont Renaissance Development Corporation’s executive director, Brett Saddler, who has been at the forefront of the community’s resurgence for more than a decade.
The train station didn’t exactly come out of the ground quickly. “Brett and I started work on it in 2006,” says New Castle County Councilman John Cartier, whose district includes Claymont. But Cartier, Saddler and others believe the station serves not only as a symbol of Claymont’s rebirth but also as its linchpin.
How the redevelopment evolves depends largely on the complexities of the real estate market and how Commercial Development Company Inc., the Missouri-based business that purchased the old steel mill in 2015, tweaks the plans it announced four years ago for the 420-acre site.
“It’s truly amazing to see those large buildings coming out of the ground so quickly."Brett Saddler, executive director of Claymont Renaissance Development Corporation
“[We’re not sure] what’s going to end up happening. We’re going to shuffle the deck a little bit,” said Steve Collins, CDC’s executive vice president. Because of the collapse of the market for office space, both locally and nationally, since the COVID-19 pandemic, two office buildings planned for near the train station might not be built, and the location and construction sequencing for retail and residential phases of the project might be changed, he said.
The new station replaces an outmoded facility built on a curved section of track a half mile to the south. It is officially named the McDowell Transportation Center, honoring former state Sen. Harris B. McDowell Jr., a longtime advocate for improved mass transit in the state.
Its features include a parking garage with 464 spaces, two elevators and an area for bicycle parking. The adjacent surface parking area includes eight charging stations for electric vehicles. An overhead bridge will take riders to and from the northbound tracks.
The current Claymont station is the busiest commuter rail stop in the state and the new one is likely to be even busier. “Ridership has been steadily growing, with more than 350 cars a day parking there since July,” says John Sisson, chief executive officer of the Delaware Transit Corporation. The new station may attract commuters who now board SEPTA trains in Wilmington and in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania. In a few years, after CDC moves ahead with its plans for apartments and townhouses, their residents will be within walking distance of the new station, just a 25-minute ride to jobs in downtown Philadelphia.
At least for now, the new station will offer commuters two bonuses: free parking in the garage and free charging at the EV stations.
There are no current plans to charge for parking, but the garage has been designed to permit installation of a payment system, Sisson says. Starting in January, there will be a fee to use the EV charging stations, but the rate has not been determined.
In addition to serving rail riders, the station will double as a hub for DART buses and for SEPTA’s 113 line, which now stops at Tri-State Mall.
Greeting commuters as they drive into the station is a massive stained glass and stainless steel holographic, kinetic sculpture by Philadelphia-based internationally known artist Ray King. The sculpture is titled “Phoenix,” recognizing the area’s rebirth and the Phoenix Steel Corporation, one of the numerous former operators of the steel mill.
“As the sun moves, it changes color. When the sun hits it, it’s just fantastic,” Saddler says.
Also, eight windscreen shelters along the station platform will feature art glass compositions by California artist Stephen Galloway. Titled “Arbor for Claymont,” the windscreens depict birch, hickory and tulip trees that are familiar to many Delawareans.
The station brings to Claymont a sense of promise and pride.
Not only is it beautiful and user friendly, Cartier says, but it should also “stimulate redevelopment of adjacent sites.” That, in turn, could lead to those SEPTA trains bringing Philadelphia residents to jobs in Claymont.
“It’s going to be such an economic driver for the area,” Saddler says. “Claymont is punching so above its weight with the station.”
Two new warehouses
Last month First Industrial Realty Trust announced completion of its 358,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution center, whose features include 68 dock-high door positions, two drive-in doors, 238 trailer stalls and 289 parking spaces. The warehouse and parking areas cover most of the 28 acres First Industrial purchased from CDC last year. The facility is ready for occupancy, but no tenants have signed leases yet, according to John Hanlon, First Industrial’s executive director.
As First Industrial was wrapping up construction of its warehouse, Georgia-based Agile Cold Storage was breaking ground for a 165,000-square-foot facility across from Tri-State Mall. It’s actually the first step in a two-phase project, with another 100,000 square feet to be added later. Overall, Agile will be spending about $170 million to develop the site, with some help coming via a $4.5 million grant from the state’s Strategic Fund.
Saddler said he expects the first phase of Agile’s project to be completed in late 2024 or early 2025.
Both projects are touting their sites’ easy access to the New York and Washington, D.C., markets via Interstate 95, as well as to the Port of Wilmington and the Philadelphia International Airport.
Agile has said its project will create about 130 new jobs, with an average salary of about $56,000. As a larger project, a greater number of jobs should be created at First Industrial, but the number will depend on the needs of individual tenants.
Revising the redevelopment
CDC’s original plans for First State Crossing called for an array of uses – distribution centers, light industry and some offices west of Philadelphia pike; offices, retail and residential between the train station and Philadelphia Pike; residential and parkland north of the train station between the train tracks and the Delaware River.
But the COVID-19 pandemic triggered turbulence in real estate markets that has already brought one change to the master plan and will likely lead to others.
The first change was construction of Agile’s warehouse where a high-rise office building had been planned.
The next likely adjustment involves the area between the train station and Philadelphia Pike, where two office buildings and a parking garage had been planned. They probably won’t be built, according to Collins, Saddler and Cartier.
“There’s a very strong demand for residential. The residential may move, the offices may change. We’re working through the economics.”Steve Collins, executive vice president of Commercial Development Company Inc.
Collins won’t say what he has in mind but Saddler and Cartier anticipate some form of mixed-use development, a combination of retail, smaller offices and residential. Depending on how much the plans for this parcel change, the developer would have to submit a resubdivision plan or restart a rezoning request, New Castle County Land Use officials said.
The larger question is whether CDC then sticks to its original master plan or makes more adjustments. That master plan is a conceptual document and has not been filed with the county, Land Use officials said. The former steel mill site remains zoned for heavy industrial use, but the land between the railroad tracks and the river would be subject to restraints imposed by the state’s 1971 Coastal Zone Act.
CDC had planned a mixed-use development at the corner of Philadelphia Pike and Transit Center Drive, the entry road to the train station, with about 300 apartment units.
CDC has outlined even bolder plans for the area between the train tracks and the river – approximately 1,000 housing units – apartments and townhouses – and a riverfront park that could include an amphitheater, event spaces, a wildlife habitat, athletic fields, a dog park, nature trails for pedestrians and bicyclists and possibly a marina.
The housing could take a decade or more to build, based on Collins’ estimate of 100 units per year.
There is no timeline for the park, which Saddler estimates would cost $30 million to $40 million to build. A $1 million state grant and $1.5 million from the Bezos Earth Fund provide some seed money for that project.
“There’s a very strong demand for residential,” Collins says, pointing to the success of the nearby Darley Green apartments and townhouses, which could serve as a model for CDC. But he says CDC is highly sensitive to changes in the broader real estate market. “The residential may move, the offices may change. We’re working through the economics.”
Claymont community leaders are concerned that, since the steel mill site is zoned for heavy industrial, CDC or a future owner could scrap any plans for residential, retail or offices there and build warehouses and factories instead. Community representatives and county officials acknowledged that there has been some discussion of preemptively rezoning some of the site to limit industrial usage but no formal proposals have been made.
Meanwhile, at Tri-State Mall
KPR Centers, the New York-based real estate company that acquired the deteriorating Tri-State Mall two years ago, has gained approval from New Castle County to build a 525,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution center on the site.
The mall’s upper level has been demolished; a few stores on its lower level remain open. A new retail building on the southeast corner of the property, not far from where Levitz Furniture once stood, is nearing completion. The liquor store now on the mall’s lower level will move into that space.
The old station’s fate
Another unknown as First State Crossing evolves is the fate of the decommissioned train station.
“I jokingly say the current station is a horrible experience – the tunnel underneath the rails, the tracks on a curve,” Sisson says.
As of next month, it won’t be used anymore but it won’t entirely disappear.
The state will eventually remove the bus shelter, canopies, and wind screens, Sisson says. But he doesn’t know whether Amtrak has any long-range plans to straighten the track or close the pedestrian tunnel. A new multimodal path will link the old and new stations and connect to the existing path that extends southward to the pedestrian bridge at Gov. Printz Boulevard.
Saddler believes Amtrak will eventually straighten the track so its high-speed trains won’t have to slow down as they pass through Claymont. He hopes that the tunnel can be refurbished, possibly being made handicapped-accessible, so it can serve as an access point to the planned riverfront park.
The just completed projects “give me a great sense of pride in Claymont’s determination to revitalize,” Saddler said. “But the job is not nearly done. There’s a lot more growth to be had and a lot more opportunity for Claymont.”