Newark residents had their first opportunity Sunday to ponder a proposed 10-story hotel and parking garage that, if approved, would dramatically change the downtown Newark skyline.
The informal meeting, held at developer George Danneman’s Ogletown Road Hotel, drew a smaller crowd than is typical for large development projects. However, the 20 or so residents present raised concerns about traffic, parking, and the impact a project of this size would have on the character of Newark.
“Our Newark is a unique little town. Having this monster built ruins the whole place. It belongs on the STAR campus, ”said one of the participants to Danneman and his colleague Stephen Kessler.
Another argued that Dannemans Hotel, along with the already approved seven-story Lang Development Group hotel just a block away, would set a bad precedent for downtown.
“Both projects will open the door to other projects of the same density and size,” said the participant.
Others said the building was unattractive.
“Everything is a box. It’s just unattractive, ”said one participant. “Let’s make it nicer if you have to have it.”
Danneman’s plan includes a 108-room hotel, 12 apartments, retail space and a 292-room parking garage that he plans to rent to the City of Newark.
The project is to be built at 132 E. Main Street, which currently houses Tasty Wok, Playa Bowls, the former Margherita’s Pizza and four apartments. The property, which has been owned by the Danneman family since the early 1980s, would be demolished and replaced with new retail space on the ground floor and apartments on the three floors above.
Behind it was a five-story garage with a five-story hotel above it.
The hotel and garage would be built on the current parking lot and extend behind the Chipotle and Panera buildings, also owned by Danneman, but those buildings would remain intact.
“We are very excited about this Main Street project,” said Danneman on Sunday. “We went to great lengths to incorporate Newark architecture into this design.”
Most of the garage / hotel portion would be built on land Danneman owns and currently leases to the city for parking, but it would also extend to an urban portion of the property. This means that Danneman would have to enter into a public-private partnership with the city – an idea that, according to city officials, would be controversial and associated with legal hurdles.
At 10 stories, the Dannemans Building would undoubtedly be the tallest building on Main Street, dwarfing Lang’s Hotel by three stories and the height of the STAR Tower at the University of Delaware. The Christiana Towers to be demolished are the only taller buildings in Newark.
Several attendees asked if there was a market for another hotel that would be the 11th in the Newark city limits.
Scott Craver, general manager of SpringHill Suites on Ogletown Road, which Danneman opened last year, said Newark is a strong market for hotels. The city attracts business travelers visiting WL Gore and other businesses, as well as people attending the University of Delaware or coming to the area for youth sports tournaments.
“We will likely divert business away from downtown Wilmington because staying in downtown Wilmington is not as desirable as staying here with the convenience of all of the restaurants on Main Street,” said Craver.
Danneman and his team added that they believe the hotel would be an economic engine for downtown, attracting a steady stream of customers to visit restaurants and retail stores on Main Street year-round, including during the traditional slow summer.
“Maybe it will encourage other entrepreneurs to open new restaurants and new businesses,” said Kessler. “When there are people there, there is market demand. Hopefully, if there is market demand, new things will come to town. “
Meanwhile, the garage would add much-needed parking in an ideal location in the heart of Main Street, Danneman said.
The existing urban plot has 152 parking spaces. Danneman’s proposal envisages a garage with 292 parking spaces, in which there are still around 60 parking spaces. This means that the project would double the current number of parking spaces.
He hopes to be able to rent the garage out to the city and does not plan to reserve spaces for hotel guests.
Even if every hotel guest and employee brought a car – which Danneman thought was unlikely with the SpringHill Suites as a model – more than half of the garage would be open to the general public. He noted that a hotel uses the most parking spaces at night, while its parking lot is mostly empty during the day, when the current city parking lot is often the busiest.
“We believe that a parking garage this size will help reduce the traffic congestion on Main Street,” said Kessler. “Instead of taking squares away and making them smaller, we wanted to add something to give back to the city, to reduce the burden on the park.”
However, Kessler acknowledged that the 16-month construction of the hotel would be “painful” for business owners and customers looking for parking.
Danneman hopes to start construction in June 2020, exactly when the year-long Main Street repair project is complete. In the meantime, construction of the Lang Hotel – which is located on another parking lot maintained by the city – will begin in the fall and continue through the first quarter of 2021.
This means that for a few months next year two of the city’s three parking spaces will not be accessible due to the construction of the hotel, which will make the already difficult parking location even more difficult.
“Going through all of this is not going to be fun for anyone, but the bottom line for central business district businesses will be so positive that it will be worth going through some of that pain to get there,” said Kessler. “Both projects will bring a large number of additional people downtown.”
Danneman said he intends to submit formal plans to the city within four to six weeks.
From there, the project faces a complicated path.
City administrator Tom Coleman said earlier this year his first step would be to have an initial discussion with the city council to see if the city council is even interested in starting negotiations on renting the garage.
There are some “legal hurdles” to overcome, he added.
Typically, a public-private partnership takes place through a formal call for proposals (RFP) where multiple companies submit a proposal and the city council selects a proposal through a public process.
“This was an unsolicited offer. George reached out to us, ”Coleman said. “The Council could do without the tendering process, but I don’t know they would want that.”
The council issued an RFP for a garage for another property a few years ago – the one behind the Main Street Galleria – but did not develop any of the five proposals submitted. Since then, the city has pushed back discussion of a garage in favor of a broader plan to gradually rethink how the city approaches downtown parking.
Danneman’s proposal could revive the idea of a garage, but it remains unclear whether the council would be interested.
“I’m not sure there will be much appetite at the community level,” Coleman said.
Beyond the lease talks, the project would also require city council approval for a special permit to operate a hotel and a significant variation in the amount. The 10-story proposal exceeds the maximum allowable height by three stories.
The height likely makes the project a lot harder to sell than the Lang project, which was code-compliant, and gives the council more discretion to reject it.
In a letter to Danneman, Planning Director Mary Ellen Gray noted that the project was using residential real estate and warned, “It could be very difficult to get a permit.”