A full-service, contemporary campus in North Wilmington will serve thousands of Wilmington University students who live or work in the Brandywine Hundred area. It’s an expansion illustrative of a forward-thinking university that has experienced exponential growth.
Of the more than 20,500 students that Wilmington University serves, 42 percent live in New Castle County, with a large majority in the North Wilmington area. In 2011, WilmU opted to rent space at Concord Plaza in North Wilmington to serve those students. Despite its first-rate staff, nine classrooms, computer labs and lounge area, the location could not accommodate the thousands who wanted to take courses. While the location is still in operation, demand has trumped supply.
The need for a permanent, expansive campus in North Wilmington was evident, and Wilmington University President Dr. Jack P. Varsalona had long anticipated this need. He’d been combing the region for cost-effective buildings or plots, but found real estate in the Brandywine Hundred area cost prohibitive. Then, in December 2013, he discovered land owned by the Woodlawn Trustees. And the road to the future was paved.
WilmU student Christopher Dumas is working toward his bachelor’s in accounting and finance. “I would like to take courses at (the current) Brandywine location, given the proximity to where I live; however, the offerings there have not worked with my course schedule,” he says.
Paralegal Lora Fracek lives in North Wilmington. She recently earned her MBA from WilmU, and had enjoyed online classwork, to a degree. “I took several courses online and those worked out well because WilmU is very organized and has a fantastic support and IT staff,” she says. “Some of my accounting and finance classes were challenging for me, and I would have preferred to take all of those courses at the Brandywine campus if they were available. I discovered that it’s easier to have a classroom experience if the subject matter is difficult.”
James Ambagis, who’s earning his MBA, lives in Newark but works in North Wilmington, as do a significant number of WilmU students. “The northern Delaware location is convenient for me,” he says. “It allows me to remain in the office later than I would be able to if I had to travel to the Wilson Graduate Center in New Castle.”
Caron Starr would love to take business management courses closer to home, which is about 15 minutes away from WilmU’s current Brandywine location. “I need to plot out my day just to go to the New Castle bookstore,” she says. “The 40-minute ride both ways, with traffic due to the never-ending construction (is difficult). And I have to bring my 2-year-old along while making sure I’m back home in time for my (other) son and his sports practice and game schedules.”
If Starr’s courses were available at Brandywine, she’d be 10 minutes from home. “(A closer location) will save me time and money,” she says, “and will continue to keep the smile on my face when I say, think or speak of Wilmington University.”
Dumas, Fracek, Ambagis and Starr represent the 42 percent of WilmU’s more than 20,500 students whom WilmU President Dr. Jack Varsalona believes would be better served by a full-service campus in North Wilmington.
“We want to cut down people’s commuting times,” he says. “There was a time when you could get to the New Castle campus from most places in New Castle County in 30 minutes. Those days are gone. That’s why we’re opening up in the Brandywine location.”
The expansion represents our future, says Dr. Varsalona, “but the New Castle campus will always exist.” In fact, New Castle underwent a recent beautification project that included the installation of masonry columns and ornamental fencing.
The future Brandywine Hundred location will be a modern campus situated on a 41-acre property on the southwest intersection of Concord Pike (U.S. 202) and Beaver Valley Road. The space could accommodate three buildings built in three phases to occur over a six- to 10-year period. The first building, a three-story structure that will offer all academic programs and services, could open in January 2017, with construction to start this spring. The project will create construction jobs, and with a building that will house about 20 classrooms, other employment opportunities could surface.
While there’s always an art to balancing the competing wishes of development and preservation, the university is committed to preserving ecologically important areas by encompassing in its plans scenic walking trails, a pond and other sustainable development designed with conservation in mind. The staff of Wilmington University respects the land on which the new campus will function.
Preserving the character of the Brandywine Valley has been a thoughtful and comprehensive process. Civil engineers from Apex Engineering in Newport, Del., were responsible for site design, which included everything outside the footprint of the building, such as grading, drainage, storm water management, sanitary sewers, parking lots, and property and topographic surveys, says civil engineer Stephen G. Davies. Rodney D. Robinson, the principal at Rodney Robinson Landscape Architects in Wilmington and the landscape architect for the project, spent considerable time walking the site, driving the local roads and studying the rural landscape.
“Our concept was to embrace the archetype of the country road,” says Robinson. “The best example is Thompson’s Bridge Road, with periodic fencing, trees growing in informal clumps, periodic views from light to dark into open space and the occasional iconic stone wall.”
“I shared images of Thompson’s Bridge Road with the (WilmU) Board of Trustees and they embraced this approach.”
The board asked Robinson to ensure that the landscape surrounding the property and within the future campus would be beautiful, but also sensitive to what residents know of as a Brandywine Valley gateway experience. “The board is unique in that it recognized the importance of involving a landscape architect early in the design process,” Robinson says, “so that the landscape had an advocate in determining the layout and character of the campus design.”
The landscape between the public road and parking will be a generous 100 to 140 feet in depth. “Along the public road,” says Robinson, “we plan to sculpt the earth and plant copses of trees and shrubs to eclipse views of parked cars while affording periodic glimpses into the campus buildings inside.” (This will occur pending approval from New Castle County. The county’s design standards require regimented trees every 40 feet along public roads.)
“Occasional stone walls and fences will provide continuity of the country road theme around the property,” adds Robinson. “Our concept for the campus layout is to embrace the existing woodland and wetland in the center of the site by clustering the buildings around them. In this way, each building will have convenient parking on one side while facing a beautiful landscape on the other. Clustering the buildings around the green space will enable students to walk in a quiet, naturalistic setting between buildings, away from the distraction of parking, moving vehicles and distant public roads. The main entrance drive to the campus will be planted heavily with a view into the existing woodland.”
Parking lots will be dense with shade trees and configured to capture storm water runoff, allowing it to infiltrate the ground quickly via bioswales (landscape elements designed to remove silt and pollution from surface runoff water) and other planted depressions. This approach will clean the water and replenish the water table, thus feeding the trees and wetlands in the interior.
Homsey Architects, Inc., the firm that designed WilmU’s New Castle and Dover campuses, as well as the Pratt Student Center, has been retained to design the expansion. With historic preservation as its métier, Homsey’s extensive credits include the original Delaware Art Museum and the renovated Queen Theatre in Wilmington. Brandywine’s “eclectic, contemporary” campus, as the architects describe it, will be a departure from the university’s traditional Georgian and Colonial styles, but will feature materials found at Dover and New Castle, like brick and limestone, that recall the Georgian designs and link WilmU’s past and present to its future.
“The Board of Trustees was enthusiastic about creating a modern design,” says Homsey Vice President Charles Ryan. “That’s illustrative of the university’s effort to express to the public and students that Wilmington University is forward-thinking and forward-moving.”
While all plans are still conceptual, Homsey associate Curtis Harkin says the eclectic nature of the first of potentially three buildings comes from an amalgamation of styles. Touches of Frank Lloyd Wright will be seen in walls built of brick, stone and glass that respect the properties of the materials and the connection of the building to the site. This modern interpretation calls for larger areas of glass, fewer punched windows and a flat roof — as opposed to the sloped Georgian roofs — rendering a “clean cornice line against the sky,” says Harkin. A traditional rotunda at the front of the building will serve as a welcoming point, and upper-floor classrooms will overlook a natural amenity that includes a stream, wetlands and 5.7 acres of woodland that’s within a riparian buffer zone (a zone that wraps around natural water courses).
“The site naturally slopes down to the headwaters of a stream,” says Ryan. “You can’t build on a buffer, so the design calls for groups of trees and plants (as Robinson stated earlier). It will be the natural center of the campus, the core. So while this core is not at the front of the buildings, it will create the pedestrian zone for students to move eventually from building to building, with walkways and elevated boardwalks. Once you get on campus, you never have to walk out and cross a street. It will be entirely pedestrian friendly.”
During Phase One, the inclusive areas of Phases Two and Three could remain as open space; however, the WilmU staff insisted that the entire perimeter be landscaped in the first phase. “We’re going to implement our full landscape screening plan from day one, which was not a requirement, but something we felt would be the right thing to do,” says attorney Wendie Stabler, a partner at Saul Ewing LLP who has represented the university for more than two decades. “You will see large planted buffers implemented during the first build. The existing school house and barn could serve various purposes, which is still under study, though funds have been allocated to maintain the school house and stabilize the barn.”
Perhaps most public will be the view of the Brandywine campus from the intersection of U.S. 202 and Naamans Road, which many consider to be a gateway to the Brandywine Valley and New Castle County. Current conceptual plans include a large reflecting pond backed by a retaining stone wall with Wilmington University lettering. The goal will be to create a softer structure that will contrast with the other corners of the intersection. “We want to be able to see the campus beyond, but not the parking lot,” says Robinson. “So we plan to pull back and leave a generous portion of that corner undeveloped.”
The primary view of the first building will be from the intersection of Concord Pike and Naamans Road. “Rather than being immediately adjacent to the highway,” says Harkin, “the building will sit about 750 feet back from the intersection. The trees, pond and stone wall will frame the view of the building, so it will be seen as an element within the site, rather than as something on the edge of the highway.”
Ryan, who lives in the Brandywine Hundred area, says that “what we do on this corner will make a real difference to the people of North Wilmington. To come along and see a Wilmington University presence, with proper signage, a reflecting pool and lush landscaping is better than the cornfield that’s there now. This is where I live. And to me, it will be a worthy introduction to the area. I don’t see big development. I see a respect of the environment and a building that’s complementing the natural landscape.”
“Having an institution of higher learning in North Wilmington is an asset,” he says.
“There are intangible benefits to having a university in your neighborhood, and raising the awareness of the value of higher education and the things that WilmU does for its students will be most beneficial.”
Plans for the Brandywine campus are conceptual, which means that architectural renderings will be modified to serve the needs of Wilmington University. An expansion of this size involves more than art and beauty — it’s a collaboration of experts who are dedicated to creating the most cost-effective yet substantial learning environment possible.
Cost-effective is the operative term. “My job is to keep tuition low,” says President Varsalona. “This expansion will be first class; however, we will take into account that we have no intention of raising tuition in order to pay for it. We’re dedicated to low tuition, so this construction, like all Wilmington University construction projects, will be built in the most cost-effective way.”
That will matter to students like James Ambagis, who needs to work late yet get to class on time. Or Caron Starr, a mom who wants to better herself via an affordable education, but needs to study close to home. It would have benefited alumna Lora Fracek, who had to drive to Middletown for a few courses — a long commute that took time away from her husband and two children. And undergrad Christopher Dumas lives around the corner from the future site. He’s struggled with parking issues at other campuses.
“The real reason we’re doing this is because there’s a considerable demand for our type of quality education,” says Dr. Varsalona. “Our growth over the years has doubled, and as long as there’s a demand, we want to serve the students who need it.” WU
Cover Story by Maria Hess
Renderings provided by Homsey Architects, Inc. All renderings are conceptual and subject to change.