In an era when suburban sprawl has distanced the American Dream from the town square, a trio of developers is banking on a hunger to return to connected, small-town living.
The Town of Whitehall, located on a rural stretch of northeast Middletown, is a mixed-use development that will feature a walkable community of villages and hamlets anchored by a town center complete with parks and retail and civic space.
“No one has seen a town built from scratch in Delaware,” said Brian DiSabatino, president of EDiS and one of three founders of the town. Local developer Eastern States Group and The Welfare Foundation, a nonprofit organization that owns the land, are the other two.
Modeled in part after historic small towns like Chestertown and Chesapeake City, Md., DiSabatino said the project will marry the architectural DNA of these quaint cities with winding streets no more than a quarter mile from a park, civic space, or retail center.
Nineteen years in the planning, the expansive tract of land between Lorewood Grove Road and the C&D canal finally shows the beginnings of construction, including a welcome center and a variety of bulldozers.
Earlier this month, the community sold its first lot — one of 1,200 single-family homes that will be built in the community over the next 25 to 30 years. Nearly 3,000 residences, including twins, townhomes, and live-work units are planned in total.
It’s the materialization of a project that dates back to 1984, when The Welfare Foundation purchased the property from Delmarva Power. Nearly 15 years ago, foundation officials asked DiSabatino and Eastern States Group to hammer out the specifics of what they’re calling a “legacy project.”
“The question was how do you take 2,000 acres and develop it in a way that you would be proud of and multiple generations would take advantage of,” said DiSabatino. “Delaware is devoid of new places.
“There’s new strip shopping centers, new housing developments, new business parks. But our research showed that there was not a new place in over 150 years.”
Calling it one of the most exciting projects he’s been a part of, DiSabatino said he jumped at the opportunity to develop 2,000 acres into a legacy project that generations could enjoy.
“The biggest challenge is that no one has seen a town built from scratch in Delaware, helping them believe that this isn’t a marketing gimmick,” said DiSabatino. “This is a real town with stores and churches and schools and parks and problems.”
That level of honesty has been a hallmark of the marketing effort, which includes an active Facebook page that tracks the progress of construction and a running tab of possibilities for Whitehall that ranges from concerts in the park series and a potential site for weddings to studies that name Delaware as one of the best places to retire or the benefits of a walking community.
Naysayers on Facebook, who cited concerns over traffic congestion, overdevelopment, and disruption of natural environment acreage, are encouraged to comment.
“We agreed not to shut down conversation unless it became abusive or racial,” said DiSabatino, who is administrator of the site and responsive to criticism.
“But you can complain all you want, because we believe that discourse — whether we agree with it or not — is the sign of a true town square.”
DiSabatino insists that an understanding of the long-term vision of the Town of Whitehall will quiet the dissenters, including those concerned about added traffic to Lorewood Grove Road, which will be flanked by the development on both sides.
“One of the areas of respect is clearly transportation,” conceded DiSabatino. “If there’s one complaint that’s universal, people react to transportation issues.”
The other question about the project — the original vision for which was cast back when Ronald Reagan was president — is, what’s taken so long?
According to DiSabatino, it took 15 years to finesse and finalize plans that matched the caliber of the Welfare Foundation’s vision, to determine the road network of the expansive community, and to pay attention to the natural resources and build collaborations with neighbors including the Appoquinimink School District.
Fifteen years of planning and research meant meetings with the Delaware Department of Transportation, which brought in traffic engineers to help with planning the community. According to DiSabatino, his team estimates that the development could ultimately reduce traffic by about 20 million miles thanks to fewer and shorter trips and a retail space that could meet everyday needs from food and banking to dry cleaning.
The Town of Whitehall team studied other similar planned communities, including the Seaside Community in Florida; Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Md.; and Norton Commons in Prospect, Ky.
Each of Whitehall’s seven villages has been designed by laying a half-mile circle on the topography. Some will offer larger pieces of property, as much as one-third of an acre, each home meeting the basic tenet of Whitehall’s “five-minute walk.”
“It’s a fundamental characteristic of new urbanism — you should be able to walk out of your front door and walk to something.”
Three builders — Murphy Homes, Thompson Communities, and Benchmark Builders — have been retained to build the community. Townhomes start at $298,900 and twin homes start at $304,900. The base price for estate homes is $504,900. Approximately 900 acres of the 2,000-acre parcel will be developed for Whitehall.
“People equate beauty with expense,” said DiSabatino. “By returning to historic architecture, there’s an incredible amount of beauty, simplicity, and elegance. We can deliver a more elegant solution less expensively.”
According to Nancy Fleming, director of sales and marketing for Whitehall, Mapleton Village, the first section scheduled for construction, will be home to 134 lots; 500 residents will occupy this first village over the next five years.
She added that two hamlets are entering the approval process and will be home to 555 residents.
Middletown Mayor Kenneth Branner insisted that the project won’t hamper Middletown’s ambitious plans for commercial growth, and suggestions of competition between Middletown and The Town of Whitehall are nonsense.
“By the time it’s up and running, we’ll be done,” said Branner, of the town’s comprehensive growth plan within its city limits. “Things here are moving very fast.”
But Branner said the town needs a mix of different housing options for its residents, which now numbers about 20,000.