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Brookhaven grappling with controversial development plan

Set along a stretch of strip malls, the baseball field and wooded lot in Brookhaven Borough appear out of place.

One of the last open spaces in Brookhaven, Pa. (AKIRA SUWA/Staff Photographer)
One of the last open spaces in Brookhaven, Pa. (AKIRA SUWA/Staff Photographer)Read more

Set along a stretch of strip malls, the baseball field and wooded lot in Brookhaven Borough appear out of place.

Now the land - southwest of Edgmont Avenue between Dutton Mill Road and Coebourn Boulevard - is slated to become yet another shopping center.

Some residents are speaking out against a proposal to build a supermarket, restaurant, and retail space on part of a 56-acre lot in the highly developed Delaware County community.

What might be a routine debate over a shopping center in a faster-growing community is, for Brookhaven, the largest project in recent memory.

The proposal to develop one of the borough's only large parcels of open space has also become a discussion about the future of Brookhaven, which grew rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s but has remained largely unchanged for several decades.

"Why do we need more retail development?" said Dan Gallo, a resident who is speaking out against the plans. "We can't keep our stores open anyway. We have closed storefronts and empty lots. Why are we developing more?"

With little space left to grow, new development is rare in Brookhaven. The borough has 8,000 residents and an already-crowded commercial corridor on Edgmont Avenue.

"If you need to build something in Brookhaven, it's probably got to be in someone's side yard," said Mary McKinley, the borough secretary.

The Chester Water Authority plans to sell its open space on Edgmont Avenue to developers, who propose a Giant Supermarket, LA Fitness, restaurant, and retail space. The lot is across the street from a current Giant store; the supermarket would relocate to a larger space in the new development.

As residents post lawn signs, hold protests, and pack public meetings, most of their elected officials are keeping quiet.

Several borough council members did not return messages left last week. Mike Maddren, the borough's solicitor, said he advised council members against speaking publicly on the plans before they vote.

That vote could come as soon as next month, he said, but the council will take time to review engineering studies and address concerns about traffic and other issues.

"A lot of questions were raised" at a public hearing last month, Maddren said, "and they have a lot to consider."

One councilwoman, Janice Sawicki, distributed fliers to residents before last month's hearing that were critical of the rezoning proposal.

Sawicki said she was not opposed to development in Brookhaven. But she wants it to be done carefully. In 2009, the borough adopted design standards intended to guide the redevelopment of its dated strip malls, some of which are dilapidated and vacant storefronts.

"We knew how old our shopping centers are and that they need to be redeveloped," Sawicki said.

The borough set lofty goals and visited Main Line communities to see how they regulated development to encourage attractive streetscapes and pedestrian-friendly settings.

"We were thinking generations down the road, what would you want your town to look like if the town was being built today?" said Mike Ruggieri, a former borough council member.

A 2009 report from the Delaware County Planning Department named the Chester Water Authority property now slated for development as the borough's largest privately owned open property and noted that it was much larger than any publicly owned open space in Brookhaven. The report, which said Brookhaven already had less than the recommended amount of open space, suggested using that land for recreation.

Ruggieri said he feels that work has been forgotten. The proposed shopping center does not follow the borough's adopted design standards.

Developer Robert Hill, of New Jersey-based Retail Sites, did not return messages about the project. Preliminary plans submitted to the borough propose more than 151,000 square feet of retail space and about 770 parking spaces on 26 acres of the 56-acre property.

The existing baseball field, which the borough leases on Edgmont Avenue, would be relocated to about five acres on another side of the property. The Chester Water Authority would keep the remaining land.

Though the project has attracted attention this summer, McKinley, the borough secretary, said the process would take time.

"It's just a huge, huge project," she said. "And a lot of things have to be done."