Not long before Hurricane Ida swamped Hank’s Place, Joe Grace walks into the beloved Chadds Ford eatery, where he’s greeted by waitress Vicki Sylvester: “Hey, stranger in the night. How’re you gettin’ along?”
A townie of sorts, Grace has seen his share of success as a builder in Delaware County and elsewhere. Looking every bit his age at 77, he’s survived multiple heart attacks, a stroke and cancer. “I’m healthy as a horse,” says Grace. “I’m the guy going to everyone else’s funerals. We just buried another friend—a former big-time athlete in Delaware County, Angelo Tiburzi. I figured there’d be 200 guys there. There were 10.”
Grace dodged repeated requests for a photograph, and you’ll find next to nothing about him on the internet. He was a superb athlete. A utility infielder and catcher, he might’ve made baseball’s major leagues if he wasn’t making more money building houses in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
On this day, Grace looks every bit the part of an old ballplayer, his white, straggly hair tamed by a Beau Biden Foundation baseball cap, complemented by a matching foundation pullover. Both are most likely gifts from his attorney son-in-law, Michael Hochman, one of Beau Biden’s closest friends and deputy staff secretary for his father at the White House. Stacks of papers sit where Grace’s breakfast should be. “What goddamn pains in the asses,” says Sylvester, whose husband once worked for the township. “All the permits.”
The way Grace sees it, Chadds Ford has changed. Once proud of the township’s stance on socioeconomic inclusion, he now bemoans its current sense of exclusionary privilege, particularly where it pertains to housing. He quickly produces a 2018 ordinance designed to create a “village” district. It was repealed a little less than a year later due to a flaw in the public notice, not to mention significant opposition.
Grace maintains that the reversal was intended to delay or prevent his proposed mixed-use development, Peaceful Valley, on an 18-acre tract east of Hank’s Place and north of Baltimore Pike. The property would’ve included affordable housing. Priced in the low $200,000s, the units were likely to be apartments above or near commercial space—not unlike the place where Grace and his wife, Carol, live across from Hank’s. The municipal move keeps the zoning code as it was, preventing Grace from using the acreage the way he’d like.
Since 2015, Grace has been in an 0-for-4 slump against Chadds Ford officials when it comes to his proposed projects. He’s now hired an independent consultant with municipal experience and sought legal representation in a bid to go up against the township. He’s tossing around some pretty weighty accusations, including fraud and civil rights violations. Among Grace’s half-dozen completed projects in Chadds Ford, the 2007 resurrection of the Chadds Ford Inn as Brandywine Prime is the most recent. Since then, he’s hit a wall on a Kia dealership and two developments, Peaceful Valley and Wonderland Farms.
Well connected to the local grid, Mike Ashmore is reviewing township files for Grace. A programmer specializing in information technology, he gravitated to management consultant work, spending five years on a township planning commission in suburban Boston and another five years on Chadds Ford’s commission, exiting as vice-chair in 2015. He also served on the Chadds Ford Historical and Architectural Review Board.
On Grace’s behalf, at last count, Ashmore has filed seven right-to-know requests with the township, another two with the local sewer authority and an appeal to the state’s office of open records. “These days, the township’s not sharing everything,” Ashmore says. “And there’s a big-picture pattern emerging. With anything from the Grace world, the pattern is to undo it, scrutinize it and create pretend legalities, rather than look at the merit of the plan and ask questions.”
Township solicitor Michael Maddren says the requests from Ashmore are confusingly worded and exhibit a lack of knowledge of the targeted projects. They’ve also cost the township significant time and money.
Ashmore’s not buying it. “An application from Joe’s world is subject to unnecessary review and reconsideration,” he reiterates, noting that after Kia walked away from Grace’s dealership plan, Mercedes-Benz moved in. “This applicant is treated differently—and when that occurs in a governmental body, it’s arbitrary and capricious. Unless there’s a reason for it, that’s against the law.”
Kia has since sued Grace. “Joe deserves damages because of the township’s bad behavior,” Ashmore says.
These days, Grace’s business many interests and land holdings are in family-owned entities. He claims he’s largely a consultant to his children and heirs: John Paul, Joe and Jackie (who’s married to Hochman). One example is 2016’s Wonderland Farms proposal, a 90-acre residential project on either side of Oakland Road. It’s now protected by the North American Land Trust as Brinton Run Preserve. “That project was owned by the kids,” Ashmore says. “But in this town, whenever there’s a plan or property that’s up for discussion, erroneously or not, it’s identified as Joe’s.”
Ashmore first met Grace at an architectural review board meeting. “There was this sense that you had to be careful with Joe—that he’d try to sneak something past you,” says Ashmore. “There was an operative bias. Today, the biases have intensified. The township doesn’t like developers.”
Grace’s cantankerous hillbilly cowboy persona is an interesting fit for Chadds Ford, which is basically Delaware County’s final frontier. His longtime athletic nickname was “Bronco,” after all. Grace contends township supervisors remain steadfast in keeping existing homes valuable and school rankings high. He spouts phrases like “intentional social stratification,” “socioeconomic homogeneity,” “income segregation,” “segregation by design” and “exclusionary zoning,” often reading from notes and sometimes shooting from the hip.
“There’s a now long-standing question around town,” says Grace. “Why are there only million-dollar homes in Chadds Ford? The answer: They only want million-dollar homes in Chadds Ford. Homeowners will hire service personnel to maintain their properties, but they don’t want those kind of people to live here. It’s hypocritical to invite workers to your home, then not set aside space for them to live. If you’re good enough to work here, you’re good enough to live here.”
When contacted for this story, township supervisors Frank G. Murphy, Samantha Reiner and Craig Huffman (who chairs the township’s planning commission) either ignored our requests for comment or deferred to the township solicitor. Maddren says Grace abandoned an approved Wonderland Farms project because he couldn’t close the deal. Grace counters that ownership delays and expenses zapped any potential profit. “There’s a history and culture to Chadds Ford,” Maddren says. “There are bones in this town, and we want it to remain a destination. We’re not trying to do that to the exclusion of anyone.”
The solicitor sees Grace as a guy with a persecution complex, contending that the developer has never mentioned the lack of low-income housing. In fact, Maddren notes, Grace considered building just six homes starting at $700,000 each at the Peaceful Valley site as it lost steam. Grace says that was the township’s idea, not his.
Joe Grace has agricultural roots—specifically the meat-market business in Chester, where a street bears the family name.
Upon graduating from the now defunct Saint James High School, Grace headed to Saint Joseph’s University. Due to his prowess on the baseball field, he was drafted in the 20th round in 1967, rising as high as the Class AA roster in what became the Oakland A’s organization in 1968. Had he gone to the majors, he would’ve played with the greatest in that franchise’s history, including Reggie Jackson, Jim “Catfish” Hunter, Rollie Fingers and others.
A budding success as a builder, Grace left baseball. In the late 1960s, the average major-league salary was about $19,000. Grace was clearing $20,000 on each house. “I’d never quit anything,” he notes. “And I had a hell of an arm.”
Building and rebuilding homes and hotels, J. Grace Co. began to really prosper in the late 1970s. Its largest project was in Aston—554 townhomes and condominiums. In Chadds Ford, the 82 single-family homes in the Ridings development initially sold for $340,000. They now fetch $880,000 and up.
In the early 1990s, Grace helped bring the Wilmington Blue Rocks to Delaware. Later in the decade, he was a boxing promoter, a business he called Fair Is Fair. Religion has always played a role in his life, and he grew up with a sensibility for other races, much like his friend Andrew Wyeth. “Andy was a simple guy,” Grace recalls. “If you study his paintings, he painted simple people, friends—and so many of them were Black.”
At one time, the hallways at Chadds Ford Elementary School were lined with class pictures dating back 70 years. “A third of the classmates were Black,” says Grace.
The school district wouldn’t confirm the veracity of Grace’s recollection, but in the most recent census, Chadds Ford’s overall Black population sits at 1.5 percent. It’s always bothered Grace that there isn’t enough affordable housing in Chadds Ford. Yet there are federal requirements for affordable housing. To meet those requirements, Chadds Ford counts the ’70s-era Painters Crossing apartments and Springhill Farm condominiums, built in the late 1980s. “With all the land in Chadds Ford, others are always asking why we’re not building more houses?” says Grace. “Andy used to say, ‘Why don’t you build something around here that normal people can live in?’ Grace remembers. “When they made Chadds Ford ‘historical,’ Andy called it ‘hysterical.’”
Complicating Grace’s efforts to foster socioeconomic equality is the anonymity of suburbia. “Nobody knows each other in nirvana,” he says. “I ask people I build houses for if they know Bernie on the other side of the street? They say, ‘Who? Is that his name?’”
Grace’s children own homes in Chadds Ford. John Paul, Joe and Jackie have given him and Carol eight grandchildren. John Paul is in the construction business, and Jackie, in particular, frequently urges caution when his dad tangles with the township. That’s fallen on deaf ears. “They don’t want people here unless they have a Ph.D., own a business or make $200,000 a year,” Grace says. “God forbid if you have six kids, or your wife drives a school bus. I want my kids to know that everything we did we did truthfully and upfront. I have to leave my kids a legacy, and the legacy isn’t going to be that the township mistreated me and I didn’t do anything about it.”
Despite multiple efforts, there’s still no sanctioned “village” designation in Chadds Ford—though the township has spent the past decade focused on it. The first attempts date to the early 1970s, when an application for a Chadds Ford historic district was submitted to the National Register of Historic Places. Subsequent references to a village came via a township comprehensive plan in 2010, the Brandywine Creek Greenway Concept Plan two years later, and the township’s Walkable Chadds Ford Project in 2014. The latter led to the Village of Chadds Ford Master Plan, which has been a subject of debate since 2015.
Ultimately, Chadds Ford’s village aspirations are hampered on the west by Brandywine Creek and on the east by private property. If Chadds Ford is to become the gateway to the Brandywine Creek Greenway, there needs to be mixed commercial and residential units, parking, a community center, and such. And that requires expansion beyond the current developed footprint, notes former township commissioner Ashmore.
Meanwhile, the idea of a more walkable Chadds Ford has been gaining traction with the township in the form of design work on trails running east from the Brandywine River Museum of Art to Ring Road and south from the intersection of Baltimore Pike and North Creek Road to the Chadds Ford Historical Society. The project includes a pedestrian crossing and other improvements to Baltimore Pike, and a number of easements are required. Some are secured, but there’s reluctance from some property owners, including Hank’s Place and a certain Grace family entity.
Toward these ends, Peaceful Valley was presented in concept to the planning commission in October 2018. Grace says plans for its 18 acres dovetailed with those for a walkable Chadds Ford. They included 45 townhouses and 20-some apartments above commercial space. “It’s what they wanted to have—a possible village,” says Ashmore.
That summer, supervisors voiced support for the project, provided it addressed certain “wants,” parking requirements, safety issues and road improvements. Concerns over sewer access and density were also addressed.
But that township support wasn’t evident when push came to shove. “Months later, a narrowly drawn map was proposed,” says Ashmore. “This map defined an area so small that it was totally inconsistent with the master plan, ordinance and the Peaceful Valley sketch plan.”
When the township’s land planner was asked to weigh in, he recommended dividing the proposed village district in two. Opposition from open-space proponents followed in short order. “The sheer number of township wants could only be satisfied if the [Peaceful Valley] property was part of the village,” says Ashmore. “To suggest that all of what they wanted would fit within the currently developed footprint is asinine, so when it became obvious to everyone that [the map] couldn’t accommodate the village, they rejected it, then repealed the ordinance, effectively killing the village.”
Back at Hank’s Place, Carol has just called. She has a doctor’s appointment, and she’s walking across the busy intersection to Hank’s retrieve her husband’s keys. “Let me go intercept her and holler at her,” he says. “She doesn’t like driving my truck.”
Interestingly, Grace was once arrested at the very same intersection. During another flood in 1999, the state police found him blocking the intersection with his backhoe. He was trying to play Good Samaritan by clearing debris, and he refused to budge. A “f—k you” landed him in front of a pair of judges, who recommended some downtime at the Grace family farm in Williamsport. “I was told to go up there, buy a super-box of sugar cubes and suck on them a while,” Grace says. “I got probation for a year.”
After his wife secures the truck, Grace declines a ride back to his apartment. Still in a medical boot from a recent ankle surgery, he walks home. “I always tell people that if it wasn’t for sports, I would’ve been in jail—but there are a lot of nice people in jail,” he says before heading out. “Whatever I am, I’m sincere.”
Related: Hank’s Place Rebuilds After Hurricane Damage in Chadds Ford