CLAYMONT — The northern Delaware city known for its industrial history and century-old steel mill may soon see new, green life in the form of Electric Arc Park.
A complete design for the park was created by students of the Coastal Resilience Design Studio, based at the University of Delaware. Now, the Claymont Renaissance Development Corp. is endorsing it.
The park’s plan gives a huge nod to the history of the site and its former industrial steel mill. Dr. Jules Bruck, UD professor of landscape architecture and director of CRDS, said designers wanted to pay tribute to longtime Claymont residents who worked and relied on the mill, once upon a time.
“It’s important that we tell the story of the transformation of the landscape over time,” she said. “The change of use from industrial to passive use for enjoyment and also the change environmentally, from the wetlands becoming degraded to then becoming restored. It’s all contributing to a better climate future.”
Dr. Bruck co-founded CRDS in 2018 after working on a project for clean water in Laurel, which she said turned into a successful community redevelopment initiative in which green infrastructure just happened to help with stormwater and flooding issues.
“That project prompted us to get together to ask how we can do more for small rural communities in Delaware that lack resources to put projects like this together,” Dr. Bruck said.
Ultimately, Delaware Sea Grant became the funding agency for the program, which resulted in interdisciplinary teams made up of students working to solve local environmental challenges.
The students that created the park plan for Claymont combed through surveys, answered by residents, to develop a proposal for the community. The main goals for the park are to restore wetlands to clean stormwater runoff and provide resilience, create a trail system with lookouts for people to feel a connection to the Delaware River while promoting exercise and develop recreational amenities, including a dog park, sports fields, event space, a marina and a concessions area.
Dr. Bruck said there are two concerns for landscape projects like the Claymont park: that the space is open and free and that it benefits the environment.
“The more green spaces that we can create and preserve with as many plants as possible, the better off we are going to be in the long run, as we start to combat major issues like our changing climate, greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of biodiversity,” she said. “Green spaces play multiple roles for people in the short term and medium term and the long term.”
Delaney Pilotte, a landscape architecture junior at UD, was largely involved in the design of Electric Arc Park. She said the potential for community engagement was heavily considered, and the accessibility to nearby neighborhoods and people with disabilities was essential.
“We wanted to make these designs open-ended,” Ms. Pilotte said. “Making sure that this is a community space and not having it closed off in any sort of way to any demographic of people — whether that be through physical disabilities, racial inequalities — just keeping it open for everyone and making sure that this is a site that is welcoming, no matter where you are from.”
Andrew Gainey, a graduate student at Wilmington University studying environmental science and policy, focused on the site’s history and what needed to be included to make the park as environmentally friendly as possible. He said the contamination from the steel mill was extensive, particularly in the residential area near the water. Parts of the pond had been used as cooling areas for metals, so it became a hot spot for industrial chemicals.
“That was something we wanted to keep in mind and provide as much vegetation as possible as a means to cleanse runoff that’s going to go into the Delaware River,” Mr. Gainey said. “But also in our wetlands design because wetlands act as a filter to water to further remediate it.”
He said small nods to the history of the site, such as the name, were important to create a community connection.
“So we used little things that might ring a bell to some people but also make it informative to others, so they can learn about the site and get into that sense of community, while also acknowledging the history of it,” Mr. Gainey said.
Dr. Bruck said the Phoenix Amphitheater, included in the plan, pays homage to a former owner of the steel mill, Phoenix Steel. It also creates a concept of a “phoenix rising from the ashes,” looking to a future of regeneration.
“I think Claymont has a great story to tell, and it would be a missed opportunity to not do a lot of different interpretive signage, programming and events around all of that history,” she said.
Although the plan is still in its introductory phase, with public hearings coming soon, it has already garnered support from several groups, including the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, the Eastern Brandywine Hundred Coordinating Council and Delaware Greenways, according to a Claymont Renaissance Development Corp. press release.
“We believe that funding opportunities for this project are out there at the county, state and federal level to make this legacy investment possible,” said Brett Saddler, executive director of CRDC.
He added that there are several underserved communities in Claymont the group is hoping to connect to the park.
“Part of the plan, which is not shown on these maps, is to have a trail running all along the Naamans Creek riparian area, going all the way up, that wraps around to Knollwood,” he said. “So there will be access to this park directly from the Knollwood community.”
Many state and county representatives are also backing the initiative, including New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer.
“This is an exciting plan for Claymont, our county and the Philadelphia region,” Mr. Meyer said in an email. “I have toured the site and appreciate such a scenic waterfront plan that would include a bark park, athletic fields, greenway trails, amphitheater and a full-service marina. We will continue to collaborate to hopefully make this park a reality.”
Rep. Larry Lambert, D-Claymont, born and raised in the area, said residents have been asking for a park like this for decades.
“This is very introductory right now, but we want to make sure that the community gets a look at (the plan), too,” he said.
He added that the plan is a reflection of what current residents want for their community and that legacy residents also prioritized.
“Those legacy residents shared that they were interested in a marina, a boat ramp, access to the river parkland and green open spaces,” Rep. Lambert said. “When you bring those types of opportunities to Claymont, that’s how we raise our property values, that’s where people are able to spend additional time with their families and enjoy Claymont indigenous wildlife.”
Mr. Gainey, Ms. Pilotte and their fellow designers hope to see the project through to completion. Mr. Gainey said they have been meeting stakeholders frequently to make the idea feasible and that most of the team spent 70-80 hours per week, all summer long, dedicated to research on the site.
Ms. Pilotte said their extensive research is reflected in the design.
“To make a community reflect the beauty of its citizens, you need to invest in it,” she said. “When you invest in good projects that have been thought through to the level that we have thought through this project, you can really have a long-term solution that isn’t going to crumble, it isn’t going to falter, and people are going to really enjoy it.”
Mr. Gainey agreed.
“I think legislators need to understand that this is a love letter to Claymont,” he said. “I think that’s the most important thing, that having this will set a precedent for the future that is sustainable.”