When Upper Darby Mayor Tom Micozzie posted a campaign video on his Facebook page, he said he knew he was striking on an unlikely political issue at an opportune time.
“I get requests every day as to why the Drexeline Shopping Center is not being built,” Micozzie says in the video as ominous music plays. “Now, I’d like to tell you the real story.”
Republican Councilman Pat Spellman says: “This is a huge opportunity missed for Upper Darby families. It didn’t have to be this way.”
Micozzie and his fellow Republicans have solidified the Drexeline Shopping Center as a rallying point in the lead-up to the November election. They say the dilapidated complex would be transforming into a $118 million town center by now had it not been for a politically motivated lawsuit filed more than a year ago by Upper Darby Democratic Committee members.
Democrats, including Micozzie’s challenger Barbarann Keffer, say the suit — an appeal of a 2018 zoning board decision — had nothing to do with politics. Neighbors just wanted a say in the development process, they contend.
Developer P. David Bramble, of MCB Real Estate LLC, declined to discuss the value or its tenants of the complex until plans are finalized.
With the appeal, “we did a hit a bump in the road,” Bramble said, but “we’re still plugging away. We haven’t given up.”
Bonnie Hallam, 73, and Janice Haman, 58, two Democrats who filed the appeal, said they were acting as concerned citizens, not politicians.
“I really feel sad that they’ve tried to politicize community engagement,” said Hallam, who has lived in the township’s Drexel Hill section for 13 years. “I want redevelopment. I live down the street” from the shopping center.
Haman, a resident for nearly 30 years, agreed, saying she was concerned about protecting the natural resources on the property, which sits along Darby Creek.
“It’s kind of sad this is the linchpin of [the Republicans’] campaign,” she said.
Although Keffer has concerns about the town center, the township councilwoman said she had no involvement with the lawsuit.
“This is some sloppy attempt to do guilt by association,” she said.
This back-and-forth comes at a time when the political landscape in Delaware County is changing. Two Democrats sit on the five-member county council for the first time in four decades. In November, the party hopes to take control for the first time since the Civil War. The area was once a Republican stronghold, but Democrats now have an advantage of more than 30,000 registered voters.
In Upper Darby — the county’s most populated town with more than 82,000 people — the political discord has been building for more than a year. On the surface, the conflict began without partisan undertones.
Some residents said in June 2018 that they were underwhelmed by plans to turn the dated complex into a town center, which was to include an expanded ShopRite, an apartment building, medical offices, a new Wawa, and a large building of self-storage units. Compared with other city-like Main Streets in nearby suburbs, opponents said, the future Drexeline seemed lackluster.
But all agreed that something needed to be done on the 17-acre, asphalt-filled parcel that many people pass each day as they drive on Route 1 and State Road. Most of the tenants had closed up shop, leaving empty windows and faded outlines of store names such as B&S Shoes and Flynn & O’Hara School Uniforms.
A month later came the appeal of the zoning board’s approval of the project. Across the suburbs, neighbors within a certain radius of a proposed development can appeal such an approval in their county common pleas court.
“All I could think of is, ‘They’re going to do this one time,’” said Haman. “We have to make it as good as it can be.”
The lawsuit was settled in November. MCB Real Estate agreed to build a community garden, use energy-efficient materials, and make more of the ground water-penetrable to reduce storm water runoff and decrease the risk of flooding.
At the time, Mayor Micozzie said in a statement: “I am pleased that all parties were able to come together, work through these issues, and reach a compromise that allows this project to move forward and make much-needed improvements to the current shopping center.”
So when the Upper Darby GOP shared the “#SaveDrexeline” video earlier this month, Haman said she thought the timing seemed “disingenuous.” It had been nine months since the settlement.
“They want to get people all ginned up,” she said, adding that the Democrats aren’t the reason the Drexeline project stalled. “Anyone who knows anything about construction projects knows delays happen, appeals happen.”
In a telephone interview this week, Micozzie said he was relieved that the legal battle ended. Since then, however, he’s seen the toll that the delay took on the development, he said, with the medical office complex backing out and the projected value plummeting from $118 million to $65 million.
Does he worry that the project may fall apart?
“I worry about it every day,” he said.
Hundreds of jobs and hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue are on the line, Micozzie said.
His constituents are worried, too, he said, often approaching him in Wawa or at community events, asking for updates.
Donald Bonnett, the Republican township council president, said he also gets those questions.
That concern prompted the party to post the video, Micozzie said.
And yes, “it is politicizing it,” said Bonnett, who represents the district where Drexeline is located. But “the message has to get out.”
“I think it’s [the Democrats’] mission to make us look bad as Republicans,” he added.
Hallam and Haman said that isn’t the case.
“It’s ludicrous,” Hallam said. “We were concerned about something in our neighborhood.”
Micozzie said he must now wait to hear from developers on the project’s status and whether it was able to get new tenants.
MCB Real Estate bought the property in 2016 and has already invested more than $30 million in the development, Bramble said.
The developer said he wants residents to know that MCB remains excited about the site’s potential.
“I think people should take heart. We’re working really hard on this,” he said. “We believe in this neighborhood.”