The promise and peril of Fort DuPont

Jeffrey Randol, executive director of the Fort DuPont Redevelopment & Preservation Corp., lives in this renovated house formerly occupied by Navy officers.

By Dan Linehan
Special to Delaware Business Times

After more than four years of planning, construction will begin in the coming months on the first new homes at the Fort DuPont Complex in Delaware City. It’ll be the latest and most concrete sign of what developers are hoping will be a massive redevelopment project along the Delaware River.

With a grand vision that includes a 120-slip marina, 150-room hotel and about 400 new homes, the 400-acre complex has natural advantages. The property dates back to the Civil War and offers some of the last undeveloped riverside views in the state.

From a development perspective, it has another major advantage: The Fort DuPont Redevelopment & Preservation Corp. was gifted all of the land and buildings by the state. This allows the corporation to offer lower prices by removing land costs from the equation.

But the project has a potential downside, as well, with the historic property sitting on a 100-year floodplain.

Jeffrey Randol, the redevelopment commission’s executive director, said the plan is to create a “mini Holland,” with a series of earthen barriers at an estimated cost of between $2.5 million and $3 million. Funded by a combination of grants and proceeds from land sales, the levees are being designed to accommodate about
100 years of sea level rise, using a midrange projection.

These embankments will not protect the whole site. Over the past two years, about $800,000 worth of dirt has been brought in to raise a large section of the property out of the floodplain.

About $6 million in state funds have been spent at the site so far, with millions left to go. Total construction spending is estimated at $211 million over seven years, with spending peaking in 2020 and 2021.

“A lot is going to happen over the next five years,” Randol said.

Built in the Civil War as a gun emplacement to oversee the river, Fort DuPont received major upgrades around the turn of the century and served as a training and deployment center during both world wars.

Moving to construction

The pace of development will depend on interest from potential buyers. But Randol said several of the pieces are falling into place, and the first land sales are expected this fall.

Rockwell Homes recently signed an agreement to build about 100 single-family homes. Construction on a model house is slated to begin this fall.

The commission also signed a memorandum of understanding with a group looking to develop a technology campus. A combined brewpub-restaurant and an aquaponics greenhouse are also in the works.

New Castle County, which operates a wastewater plant on the northeast corner of the site, has approved a plan to extend sewer lines to 80 residential lots. There are no natural gas lines yet, but work has started to install them. The main road into the site also needs to be widened and rebuilt, and a roundabout is planned for its intersection with Del. 9.

Rep. Valerie Longhurst, who in 2014 sponsored legislation creating the Fort DuPont redevelopment group, said it’s more important to preserve the area’s historical integrity than to rush construction. “Do I see it happening in two years? No. Five to 10 years? Yes,” she said.

The biggest hurdles in the years ahead, Longhurst said, come down to flood mitigation.

The property, which attracts boat traffic from the Delaware River, lies within the 100-year floodplain. Because predictive models show a major hurricane would demolish the area, plans are being discussed to elevate the site and build a levee. 

Flooding: Risks and preparation

Delaware is the country’s lowest-lying state and nearly a fifth of its land mass lies within the 100-year floodplain. This means the land has a one in 100 chance of flooding in any given year.

In response, the developer is pursuing a two-pronged strategy: Protect most of the site with levees, and raise the rest out of the floodplain.

Though it was expensive to haul in 80,000 cubic yards of soil, there are two main reasons why part of the site is being raised out of the floodplain rather than being protected by a levee, said Steve Gorski, senior project manager at the project’s civil engineering firm, Duffield Associates.

First, raising part of the site allows rainwater to drain down and away, according to Gorski. Without it, a pump would have to be installed to pump rainwater over the levee. Second, a levee takes up valuable waterfront space that could otherwise be sold.

There are conflicting views about the long-term wisdom of building a levee amid rising sea levels. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the odds are between 1 percent and 3.3 percent that a Category 1 hurricane will hit New Castle or Kent counties in any given year.

Models predict a storm surge from a Category 1 hurricane would inundate much of the site, according to a 2018 report from the University of Delaware. “It is well known that this low-lying area is at risk during flood events,” the report stated.

The question, then, is whether the 25-foot-wide levee proposed here will protect the site.

“A dike, in my opinion, could be safely designed,” said Gerald J. Kauffman, director of the Delaware Water Resources Center at the University of Delaware.

The details matter, Kauffman said. A steep slope, for example, is more vulnerable to being washed away, but a more gradual slope takes more land and money.

Plans on the dike are not finalized, but Gorski said it may have a ratio of 3:1, meaning it extends three feet across the ground for every one foot of height. This would make for a more gentle and stable slope, and
one that is less vulnerable to being pulled apart.

The plan has critics, such as David Carter, a former administrator in the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control, who said “building in a floodplain is a public policy position best described as stupid.”

He said the project was borne out of a heedless pursuit of jobs and economic development.

“I am concerned this will be as big of a failure as Bloom or Fisker was in terms of economic benefits and cost to the public,” Carter said, referring to two failing or unprofitable companies that received millions in state subsidies. “Sooner or later, nature wins. It’s just a matter of which generation pays the cost for this bad decision.”

Longhurst said the state already pays to replenish beaches and argues that it ought to do the same here
to protect a historic asset.

Carter is skeptical that little Delaware City merits the same state investment as Wilmington’s riverfront or popular beaches in Sussex County. “If you build it, are they really going to come?” he said.

Shawn Garvin, who leads Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), said there are no absolute rules to plan for future flood risk.

“There’s no clear roadmap that says, ‘This is the way you have to do it,’” he said.

Gorski, the civil engineer, said predictions for sea level rise are a moving target that project increases of between 1.5 feet and 5 feet by 2100.

“We shot for the middle at this point, conceptually,” he said, meaning that the levee may be designed to accommodate about two and a half to three feet of sea level rise.

New Neighbors

Housing options planned for the site include stand-alone houses, town houses, condominiums and apartments priced between $250,000 and $750,000. At these costs, a household would need to earn at least $60,000 a year to qualify to buy, according to the economic development report. The median household income in Delaware City is about $44,000.

Median home prices in Delaware City are roughly $200,000. Single-family homes in the new development will be priced at $375,000 to $450,000. The 15 or so homes at the site of the former Officers’ Row will go for about $600,000.

Density is a key concern of long-term residents.

Delaware City Mayor Stanley Green said the town learned from the example of fast-growing Middletown. “They’ve learned a lot, and we get the opportunity to try some things that would be a little more positive for us,” he said.

Supporters of the project are quick to note the ample green space included in the plan. This means income from one part of the site, the dense marina, is needed to subsidize the more spacious sections elsewhere.
That’s not to say developers will have a free hand to create a super-dense downtown. Building height is limited to eight stories, though Randol said they only intend to build up to five stories high. That’s one story higher than the tallest building on the other side of the canal.

Jeffrey Randol, executive director of the Fort DuPont Redevelopment & Preservation Corp., lives in this renovated house formerly occupied by Navy officers.

New brand, old Delaware City

Randol calls the new Fort DuPont a “lifestyle and destination” community, meaning that its outdoor amenities are suited to an active life and to the attraction of visitors. It will connect with the 14-mile Michael N. Castle Trail, which runs along the north shore of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

A “living shoreline” is planned to return native vegetation to the bank of the Delaware River, now littered with concrete blocks and other detritus from its former military and government tenants.

Jeff Gordon, president of the Delaware City-based American Birding Association, said careful redevelopment could actually raise the ecological value of this site.

“I don’t want to be Pollyanna here, but if the development does a few simple things like using native plants that provide food and cover rather than using Japanese barberry or other invasives common in the nursery trade … the habitat over there could actually improve from where it is now,” he said.

Gordon makes this argument in part because the site is no pristine wilderness today.

“It’s a pretty heavily used area and it has been for decades,” he said.

To John Buchheit, former mayor of Delaware City and owner of Crabby Dick’s restaurant, the connection between the two cities will be critical. Plans now call for a pedestrian bridge near the mouth of the branch canal, but neither the location nor the type of crossing has been decided upon.

Re-creating the historic ferry, named the Dolly Spanker, would be charming but would not offer all-hours access, Buchheit said.

He’s hoping the new development is marketed not as Fort DuPont, but as Delaware City. If the new is to be integrated into the old, the development should be seen as a part of the town, not a separate city.

Though not everyone in the city of about 1,700 looks across the branch canal with excitement, most voters apparently support the project. In May 2016, a referendum to annex the parcel passed easily with 287 votes to 150.

If that plan proceeds as expected, by 2025 Delaware City’s population will have increased by perhaps two-thirds and may double. Even so, its natural limits will prevent it from rapid expansion, said Green.

“It’s growth, but controlled growth,” he said. “That’s the key component to this whole thing. We want to keep that charm because it invites people in.”

As Buchheit tells it, Delaware City’s story is one of unrealized potential. Originally envisioned as a rival to Philadelphia, the town pursued opportunities that were ultimately squandered or thwarted by outside forces.

Now, with the Fort DuPont Complex presenting another such opportunity, Buchheit is determined that the town seize it.

The flip-side of that narrative — Carter, the former DNREC official, calls Delaware City the “little engine that couldn’t” — suggests these previous failures happened for a reason.

Whichever turns out to be true may hinge on whether the rest of the state buys into the city’s vision of itself.

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