By Jon Hurdle
Special to Delaware Business Times
“Live-work-play” is coming to New Castle County. The Avenue North development on the AstraZeneca campus north of Wilmington is based on the idea that a new generation of office workers want to live close to restaurants and retail and would rather walk or bike to work than spend hours commuting by car.
Avenue North is expected to become the biggest development of its kind in the county. Led by Delaware developer Delle Donne & Associates, the project will create some 1.85 million square feet of office, residential, retail, restaurant and recreation space on the 80-acre campus at the intersection of U.S. 202 and Powder Mill Road in Fairfax.
The $350 million development, first announced last summer, will add about 600,000 square feet of office space to the existing AstraZeneca buildings that currently cover some 370,000 square feet. Some of the office space will be demolished and rebuilt on another part of the site.
The project will also create 335 apartments with amenities, including a fitness center, a 175,000-square-foot hotel and conference center and 200,000 square feet of retail space and more for restaurants.
The idea, said Larry Tarabicos, an attorney for Delle Donne, is that the development will attract enough employers and their workers to create a community where none previously existed.
“This is really the first mixed-use community where you are going to have enough bodies on site where they will walk every day. They will live on site. They will use the amenities,” Tarabicos said. “This is going to infuse into the area something that hasn’t been there in 30-40-50 years.”
As big nearby employers like JPMorgan Chase and DuPont grow, their employees don’t have many options for upscale housing, shops and restaurants. This project is courting local companies right out of the gate.
“The design and the concept are already attracting numerous employers to the project. We have received unprecedented interest from people in the site,” Tarabicos said. He predicted that construction will start next February or March, and will proceed in phases, depending on demand.
“I think you’ll see a very large piece of it — hotel, apartments, office space, restaurants — very quickly,” he said. “Then the rest over time as the market responds to what’s going on.”
He reported strong interest from nearby employers who recognize that the “millennial” workers they seek are no longer attracted by the traditional lifestyle of living in the suburbs and commuting long distance to work.
“A lot of new young people are moving into the area to work in these places, and right now they are driving much further than they would like to,” Tarabicos said. “They’d like to be able to bike and walk to work.”
The developer is also hoping to attract empty-nesters from the surrounding Brandywine Hundred community who are looking to downsize from the older suburban homes where they raised their families, but don’t have many options nearby.
“It’s an aging community, that’s why the public schools are not full,” Tarabicos said. “People don’t want to leave Brandywine Hundred but they don’t have a lot of options to size down. This gives them that option.”
There has been demand for the apartments, too, even though the developer hasn’t started actively marketing them yet. “We’re pretty confident we could lease 100 of them tomorrow, based on the feedback we’ve received,” Tarabicos said.
Independent observers agree that conditions look favorable for Avenue North to succeed.
Douglas Nickel, Delaware Market Leader for the international real estate company Newmark Knight Frank, said the development is likely to attract new corporate tenants such as law and accounting firms who recognize there is an existing pool of workers already in the area.
“The presence of an established population is a definite plus for an employer that’s looking to locate at Avenue North,” Nickel said. “It’s a keystone location in a well-established and densely developed market place.”
A five minute drive from I-95 and 15 minutes from downtown Wilmington, the campus is in an “excellent” location that is likely to attract the community that the developer seeks, Nickel said.
He predicted that the new apartments will appeal to residents of the Brandywine Hundred suburbs, which are among the oldest developments in northern New Castle County, and lack facilities such as fitness centers that will be included in the new development.
Together with the “work” and “live” elements, the new development looks like it will be in demand from its target market, Nickel said.
“The office, retail and residential, in tandem with the lodging component, will create a draw for consumers, residents and employers that will select a location based solely on its attributes rather than looking at other locations in the northern suburbs,” he said.
Nickel also played down concerns that an influx of new workers and residents will worsen the already-heavy traffic flow on U.S. 202 and surrounding highways. He argued that the road system was designed to handle traffic when AstraZeneca had its world headquarters on the campus, and so should be compatible with the new development.
He also anticipates that Avenue North will result in net gains for the local workforce rather than drawing people away from other developments such as Concord Plaza, a recently completed retail/residential development by the BPGS group with 341 rental units and 328,000 square feet of retail space at Silverside Road and U.S. 202.
“There is potential that it will take demand from other projects but in general I think the size and the scope are going to create synergies that are going to create movement to the location rather than eroding the existing tenant base at other projects,” Nickel said.
If it can encourage people to walk or bike rather than drive to work, Avenue North could help cut local traffic congestion, said Dave Gula, principal planner for WILMAPCO, the regional transportation planning agency.
Some 23,000 people come into the county to work every day while only 8,500 go out of the county to their jobs and just 1,400 live and work locally, Gula said, so any initiative to increase the latter number has the potential to reduce road congestion.
“It will help mitigate that development,” he said, referring to Avenue North.
Whether Avenue North makes up for all the jobs lost from AstraZeneca, it will create a new kind of community on a traditional corporate campus, said Nickel of Newmark Knight Frank.
“You have at this one location captured the essence of live-work-play at a single point,” he said.