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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 66 · No. 6 > A Benchmark for Livable Progress

May/June 2003
Vol. 66 · No. 6

A Benchmark for Livable Progress

by Robert B. King

Transportation finds common ground with environmental, economic, historic, and community concerns in northern Delaware.

With every passing day, another link with the past seems lost to the ever-moving process called "progress." Progress is inevitable, but it sometimes comes at a price, which might be damaging to historic and ecological landmarks that many communities hold dear.

In Delaware, this trend was challenged and changed, as State agencies and the people they serve came together to balance the economic need for progress with the human need for more livable communities. In a true public-private partnership, all concerned parties collectively are making decisions that will have far-reaching impacts on jobs, quality of life, the environment, and historic preservation. A good example is the Blue Ball Properties (BBP) project in Wilmington, DE.

The goal of the BBP project is to interlock the public aspects—transportation and transit improvements, park development, and preservation of the historic Blue Ball Dairy Barn and other historic structures—with the private aspect, which involves the expansion of a corporate headquarters located on U.S. 202. The business complex is adjacent to the dairy barn property, where the park is located.

Wilmington is approximately halfway between Philadelphia, PA, and Baltimore, MD, in the heart of the Nation's busy mid-Atlantic region. The State recognized that progress was required in this region but was determined that it would not be at the cost of uncontrolled growth, lost habitats, unbearable traffic congestion, or forgotten history.

Aerial view of U.S. 202 (Source: Tim O'Brien, Delaware DOT)

From top to bottom, this aerial shows the existing complex, traffic on U.S. 202, a stormwater retention basin behind the historic Blue Ball Barn, and existing trees and hedgerow.

Catalyst: Keeping a Major Employer

In 1998, a merger of two companies formed the world's third largest pharmaceuticals firm, AstraZeneca, which announced its intention to choose one of its two former sites—either the Astra site in Pennsylvania or the Zeneca site in Delaware—to become its new center of operations. State leaders began taking steps to assure that Delaware would be selected, and on April 29, 1999, the company accepted the Delaware proposal.

According to a press release from the Delaware Economic Development Office, the company and the State of Delaware "...agreed to join with local officials and residents to preserve approximately 244 acres [99 hectares] of land in North Wilmington." At the same time, various transportation improvements will accommodate the company's expansion by separating regional and local traffic, and motorized and nonmotorized traffic.

Going Beyond Traditional Roadway Infrastructure

Leaders from the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT), the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), and the Delaware Economic Development Office (DEDO) became equal partners with the community in developing a master plan for the BBP project, named in remembrance of the Blue Ball Tavern, a historic stagecoach inn that stood on the site.

More than 125 people, including representatives from the lead agencies, plus local environmental groups, historic preservationists, political and business leaders, and area residents hammered out a master improvement plan that goes beyond traditional roadway infrastructure to encompass economic, environmental, historic preservation, recreational, and aesthetic components.

Says DEDO's Director of Policy and Planning Jim Lisa, "We want jobs, but not at the expense of our quality of life."

To understand these sentiments, it is helpful to know a little about this part of northern Delaware. The area around the BBP is filled with reminders of its historic past—from black powder mills along the Brandywine Creek that were the beginnings of the DuPont Company, to the museums, gardens, hospitals, and mansions left as a legacy by the duPont family.

Retail shops border well-tended older suburban communities and tree-lined work sites for Delaware's chemical and banking industries. The company's new headquarters sits at the corner of U.S. 202 and State Route 141, with the expanded campus bridging S.R. 141. This location is considered "sacred ground" to many Delawareans, as it is just across from the A. I. DuPont Hospital for Children and the Nemours Mansion and Gardens.

Map of I-95 corridor, U.S. 202, and State Route 141 (Source: Remline Corp)

As this map shows, the busy I-95 corridor, U.S. 202, and State Route 141 all border the BBP project area. Northern Delaware accommodates significant pass-through traffic headed to or from New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC.

Support from the Top

With a new State administration elected in 2000, Governor Ruth Ann Minner, along with her newly appointed Secretary of Transportation Nathan Hayward III, inherited the responsibility of overseeing the implementation of the master plan for the BBP. Governor Minner's cornerstone "Livable Delaware" initiative already was championing an improved quality of life and more livable communities.

"Federal and State requirements for air and water quality, historic and ecological sensitivity, social and economic balance now have more influence on the solution to a transportation problem than ever before," Secretary Hayward says. "Yet, until recently, departments of transportation have continued to treat these as 'other' considerations, rather than as a fundamental piece of the problem that needs to be addressed." The BBP master plan brings these elements together.

Involving diverse groups in the decisionmaking was no easy task, but the result is a livable plan that the community has agreed on, not one that is imposed from above. Hayward says that the success of the BBP project means that it will be the model for how Delaware crafts major transportation improvement projects.

Panoramic view of campus and State Route 141, overhead walkway spans the road (Source: Remline Corp)

This panoramic view of the existing campus today shows a new overhead walkway spanning State Route 141, linking expanded and existing offices (right) with new buildings and the West Park.

How the Master Plan Was Created

In a unified effort, DelDOT, DNREC, and DEDO staff members and consultants, in partnership with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), collected data and analyzed the BBP site's geology, soils, vegetation, wildlife habitats, hydrology, wetlands, and historic structures. They examined travel patterns, congestion, safety, public transit and pedestrian and bicycle facilities, and worked with the DelDOT project team to present options to the 125 stakeholder representatives.

The representatives were divided into two working groups, one focusing on transportation and the other on recreation and historic preservation. The transportation committee's objective was to create a plan that minimized impacts on the local street system and on the environment, including cultural, natural, and aesthetic resources. The recreation and historic preservation committee concentrated on reusing historic structures in the area, addressing the ongoing recreation needs of local communities, and preserving and designing open space as signature spaces for the State of Delaware.

According to Mark Chura, DNREC's manager of planning preservation and development, "The working groups looked at existing and future land uses, stream restoration, circulation, landscape design, historic structure restoration, and stormwater management. The volunteers serving on these groups spent hundreds of hours going through mountains of materials, and their diverse perspectives and thoughtful input were invaluable to our final plan."

Staff member showing a group a model of the palnned parks (McCormick, Taylor & Associates, Inc.)

Hundreds of citizens turned out for several workshops to follow the project's progress. Here a staff member answers questions from a small group viewing models of the planned parks.

In addition to the working groups, the team held several public workshops to gather the views of the private and corporate sectors. The team also distributed quarterly newsletters to keep area residents up to date, and an interactive Web site (www.blueball.net) informs the public, including the media, about upcoming and past meetings, and the deliberations at the meetings. The site also provides maps and sections on transportation, recreational, historical, environmental, and landscaping elements.

One of the other hallmarks of the master plan is that all the permitting of the project was completed through the environmental streamlining process. Thomas Myers, division administrator of FHWA's Delaware Division Office, says "The BBP project is a good example of how working together with the permitting agencies, like the Army Corps of Engineers and Delaware State Historic Preservation Office, can ensure a solution where everybody feels that they have gained something. All the issues were reviewed and discussed in appropriate detail so there was a comfort level for making sound decisions. A good working relationship was established that we hope can continue to be used as an example of the benefits of environmental streamlining."

Historical Note

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, innkeepers along a stagecoach route in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Ohio developed a signal to let illiterate rivers know whether they needed to stop and pick up passengers. Each innkeeper attached a large ball painted blue to a pole in front of his tavern. If passengers were waiting to board the stagecoach, the innkeeper would raise the ball. Otherwise, it would remain lowered, and the stagecoach driver could pass by without stopping.

Transportation Improvements

The transportation improvements with the master plan were developed through a context-sensitive approach balancing the need to ensure at least the current level of traffic service with the desire to protect the valued resources within the area. This approach enabled all the other goals of the project to be fully realized, including the rehabilitation of the Blue Ball Barn and restoration of a stream, Alapocas Run, that courses through the project. The context-sensitive approach also facilitated public consensus, with the understanding that fixing a traffic problem was just one of the many different (and sometimes competing) goals of the community.

To address the future congestion and safety issues, the master plan proposes a number of improvements to the area around the new headquarters. Recommendations for transportation enhancements include a roadway network that separates regional from local traffic and a trail system that separates vehicular and pedestrian traffic while linking walks and bike rides to neighboring communities and parks. According to Chura of the DNREC, the BBP section of the trail system "provides a key link to Delaware's greenway system. It joins existing north and south greenways and park trails and will connect Blue Ball parkland with Brandywine Park and other county and State parks and museums."

Environmental Elements

Other improvements include the creation of wetlands and stream restoration using techniques and plantings for restoring the natural channel of Alapocas Run. Another priority during the planning has been to provide a regional system for stormwater management, including systems to detain and improve the quality of runoff from the enlarged campus, control localized flooding, and manage existing local runoff problems from residential and commercial developments where construction predated modern ordinances for stormwater management.

The stormwater management system will employ bioswales, which are sloped depressions lined with native plant materials and rock, to slow drainage and filter sediments and other contaminants from stormwater. In addition to the bioswales, detention basins and meadow depressions will improve water quality and enhance habitats.

Other recommendations for a healthy environment include preserving significant natural features such as hedgerows, woodlands, and wetlands, and seeding several large areas as meadow. Natural grasslands improve water quality by filtering surface runoff, enhancing local wildlife habitat, reducing nuisance levels of Canada geese, and decreasing energy consumption from lawn maintenance.

Historic Elements

The master plan's recommendations include the preservation and adaptive reuse of the Blue Ball Dairy Barn built by industrialist A. I. duPont in 1914 as part of his self-sufficient working farm-estate. Located directly behind the former Blue Ball Tavern, which was being used as a farmhouse at that time, the dairy barn is a rare survivor of the American country house movement of the early 20th century, adhering to the principles of the Ecole des Beaux Arts movement. The barn will be renovated and used for community events and meetings. It will include a special exhibit space dedicated to the agricultural history of the BBP, reflecting the rural background of the area. Site improvements include a stone-paved entry courtyard and paved parking area with overflow parking spaces on the lawn.

The project also involves stabilization of the Murphy House, a mid-19th century farmhouse formerly occupied by the caretakers on the duPont estate, and stabilization of the Weldin Plantation archaeological site and ruins, which dates to the mid-1700s. The ruins of Weldin Plantation will remain in the existing wooded area adjacent to multipurpose recreational fields. The woods will be cleared selectively to expose the ruins that have been hidden by vegetation for years. Picnic tables will be added around the fringe, maps and storyboards will tell the history of the site, and paths will link the ruins with other areas of the park.

Recreational Improvements

U.S. 202 divides the BBP project into a 58-hectare (143-acre) West Park and a 36-hectare (89-acre) East Park. Improvements call for a children's playground, multiuse athletic fields, improvements to a local public golf course, and a network of walking and biking trails that link BBP to the Northern Delaware Greenway, the main greenway system in this part of the State.

The A. I. duPont woods natural area is the western border of the parkland. This 32-hectare (80-acre) easement includes a horse trail dating back to the 1800s, remnants of a colonial bridge over Alapocas Run, and mature trees that are now more than 100 years old.

Landscape Beautification Plans

The master plan calls for formal patterns with relaxed planting arrangements incorporating regional native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses. In choosing materials and outdoor furnishings, the designers are giving preference to high-quality options that will reduce the cost of long-term maintenance, consumption of energy, and raw materials. They also will use recycled materials.

A public art process will determine the finishes of critical underpasses linking development on both sides of U.S. 202, as well as the elements of a garden design for the grounds of the Blue Ball Dairy Barn. Natural stone components will be the unifying theme of the park and transportation features.

Artist's rendering of a trail and surrounding nature of a park (Source: Wallace Roberts & Todd, LLC)

An artist's rendering envisions the planting arrangements of regional native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses that will add to the beauty of walking and biking trails in the parks.

Phased Timeframe

Mark Tudor, project manager of BBP, says, "Renovations of the Blue Ball Dairy Barn, construction of improvements along the west side of U.S. 202, and a section of greenway through the A.I. duPont woods natural area are slated for completion in 2003. The master plan calls for the project as a whole to be completed by 2007."

Quality of Life Benefits

Transportation Secretary Hayward notes that improvements in an established area like northern Delaware are not easy. But, he adds, "The real question is, 'Are they worth the effort and expense?' and again I'm convinced, and I'm sure this project will prove, the answer is, 'Absolutely, yes.' 'Can economic development be made compatible with everyone's desire to have an improved quality of life?' The answer to that one is, 'It has to be.'"

He continues, "Separating regional traffic from local traffic, providing more public transit options, interconnected walking and biking trails near clusters of homes and places of employment, and preserving our cultural heritage and natural environment are some of the key components that have made this a prime example of livable progress. But the key that is really working in Delaware is the one that has unlocked the door between those of us who design and implement transportation solutions and the people who live with the results every day."

The BBP experience, with the involvement of so many diverse interests, has shown that most people are willing to make compromises. Government agencies and the people they serve can work together to ensure that bringing jobs to an area, and living there happily, are both possible.


Robert B. King is a community relations officer with the Delaware DOT. He is a native of Huntington, Long Island. King is the author of several books on the subject of the great estates of the American Gilded Age (1880-1920).

To learn more about the Blue Ball Properties project, readers are invited to visit www.blueball.net.

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