December 27, 2022
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© 2022 Delaware Business Times
WILMINGTON – For more than two decades, the Fairfax community of Wilmington’s suburbs has been defined by the enormous AstraZeneca campus built there.
After years of downsizing by the pharmaceutical giant though, the site at the corner of U.S. Route 202 and Powder Mill Road is facing a new future as the Avenue North campus. To date, the site has largely looked unchanged to passersby as developer Delle Donne & Associates has improved the existing buildings.
Now, however, the Wilmington-area company is beginning its ambitious next phase of development on the eastern side of the site, building a high-end mix of office, retail and apartment housing.
Work to date
For Patrick Honeycutt, vice president of site development of Delle Donne, the past few years have been a slow grind to get the 79-acre campus bought for $50 million ready for change.
After AstraZeneca relocated all staff to its current 850,000-square-foot facility, Delle Donne worked to attract Ashland spinoff Solenis to the site for its new headquarters that opened in 2020. The development firm had planned to raze a 400,000-square-foot building near Route 202 that it couldn’t reimagine, when their plans changed, Honeycutt said.
“We ended up striking up a conversation with ChristianaCare, and what was a small use turned into a big use turned into, ‘Hey, we want a whole building.’ So that kind of changed our whole plan for the site,” he recalled.
Delle Donne ended up building a roughly 1,400-space parking garage to accommodate all the newfound workers and began working on the site infrastructure while rethinking its initial design for the undeveloped land.
Inspiration near and far
With a desire to create a mixed-use campus where residents and workers could find what they needed without wandering far, Delle Donne drew on different areas across the world, Honeycutt said.
Firm President and CEO Ernest “Ernie” Delle Donne spent a lot of time in Chicago where his daughter, WNBA all-star Elena Delle Donne, was playing for the Chicago Sky. His first suggestion was to try to replicate what the Windy City has done with an area known as The Magnificent Mile.
After deciding that was too metropolitan, they eyed Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, before settling on a more European inspiration of Paris.
“We just kind of landed on, ‘The du Ponts helped build Delaware. We have a lot of French-inspired architecture around, with the Nemours estate. Let’s turn there,’” Honeycutt recalled.
Although Paris is one of the world’s great cities, it has a decidedly less metropolitan feel, with a maximum building height of 10 stories and a lot of mixed-use through its many neighborhoods.
“There was as a lot that we could take from that [model] and apply it to what we were trying to create here,” he added, noting that included overhead catenary lights, stone pavers and large pedestrian areas, among other features. “We brought all that in and really landed on where we’re at today.”
A grand focal point
At the center of Delle Donne’s next development phase is the 12-floor, 100,000-square-foot, glass-covered tower that will include some ground-floor retail and Class A office space above.
The Tower at Avenue North will spotlight the project but won’t rise higher than the historic former Rollins Building, which stands 15 stories on the adjacent property off Route 202. Honeycutt noted that Ernie Delle Donne and the late John Rollins were close, having worked on the Brandywine Town Center project together, and they see an opportunity to honor its legacy.
“[The Rollins Building] is iconic to the state of Delaware … and Ernie was like, ‘Now we can build the new version of it,” he added, noting that they have been careful to site The Tower at Avenue North further from residential communities.
Meanwhile, Delle Donne is investing heavily into a new office building even amid rising office vacancies in the post-pandemic, hybrid work environment because they think tenants are still in the market for it.
“What we see across our portfolio is the majority of tenants have anywhere from 3,000 to 8,000 square feet. And what this building does is give a smaller tenant a big presence in a luxury building,” Honeycutt said. “These can now come in and take a whole floor, whereas in some of these other suburban office buildings you’re just one of five tenants on the floor.”
“I think the building is going to fill up pretty quick,” he said of the project scheduled to be completed in May 2024.
Delle Donne has contracted JLL to serve as its leasing agent, and Honeycutt said they were actively pursuing tenants like architectural, law and financial service firms. Some tenants may find a suburban atmosphere safer for their staff and clients while being outside of city limits will remove concerns about Wilmington’s city wage tax and access to Interstate 95 keeps them close to the whole corridor.
“This is kind of an alternative to the city, but still has that luxury, city-style architecture,” Honeycutt said.
Another tactic to draw in office tenants is the development of a mixed-use campus, featuring retail and apartments.
Delle Donne recently broke ground on a 50,000-square-foot retail center that will have anywhere from about five to 10 tenants depending on the types of tenants it can attract. Honeycutt said they are actively in negotiations with a Washington, D.C.-based high-end grocer that would make its first Delaware appearance if the deal closes, while a popular Delaware beach restaurant is also reportedly eyeing an upstate spot.
Whatever signs on for the new campus will join a Brew Haha! coffee shop and Blk Ops fitness center are already open on the site. The incoming retail building is scheduled to be completed in March, with tenants likely opening in the summertime, Honeycutt said.
Meanwhile, Delle Donne will also soon break ground on its first residential piece of the project with 110 luxury apartments, ranging from a handful of studio and one-bedroom apartments, but primarily two- and three-bedroom units. Like many of the high-end units built in the greater Wilmington area in recent years, the Avenue North units will be rich in amenities, with Honeycutt naming a movie theater room, pool tables and infinity edge pool among the pieces.
That project will break ground in the spring with a target completion by the end of 2024.
While the apartments would inevitably target the nearby office workers, Honeycutt said they are seeing increasing interest from retirees.
“My phone rings all the time with people who live in Woodbrook who want to sell their house and downsize because they’re empty nesters,” he said.
Avenue North’s future
While the firm has two years of work ahead, Delle Donne is already thinking about the future for the rest of the site, and believes it could support 250 more apartments, additional retail spots, possibly more offices and even a hotel.
The site plan has shifted in the first five years and it’s likely to change a bit again, but Honeycutt thinks this phase will bring new excitement to the project.
A few years ago, Honeycutt said he attended a local industry dinner where a major chief executive noted that “Delaware just doesn’t have anything cool” for his employees.
“Ever since then, that has stuck in my head. We’ve got to make something cool for Delaware and I think we’re on the right track,” he said.