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Coming Soon: Wilmington's Revitalized Creative District

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One year after the announcement of a multifaceted plan to turn around a Wilmington neighborhood dotted with vacant land, vacant buildings and surface parking lots, area residents will soon see some real creations in the city’s newly named Creative District.

Projects sprouting this spring, including rehabbed condos and single-family homes in Quaker Hill and murals along the Seventh Street Art Bridge, will be in full bloom by late summer. And that’s just the start of an initiative that could take 20 years—maybe longer—to complete.

The Creative District plan, rolled out last May by its primary architect, the Wilmington Renaissance Corporation, aims to transform the area west of downtown Market Street into a bustling hub where artists and crafters would gather to live, work and play—and elevate the entire neighborhood bounded by Shipley, Fourth, Washington and Ninth streets in the process.

The narrative in the master plan succinctly describes the challenge. “Aside from the historic Quaker Hill Neighborhood to the west and south and the Ninth Street commercial corridor at its northern edge, the urban fabric and identity of this target area is fragmented and undefined.”

The narrative goes on to note that parking lots and vacant land and buildings are “contributing to a sense of general inactivity and lack of cohesion.” Though three-quarters of the buildings in the area are in excellent or above-average condition, there are 54 vacant buildings in the district, and three-quarters of them need significant repair.

The plan proposes solutions such as developing a creative community in Quaker Hill, transforming Shipley Street from its role as back alley to Market Street businesses into a corridor of creative culture, focusing art-based social practice programs on Washington Street and filling in gaps by creating new uses for vacant properties throughout the neighborhood.

As those steps are taken, the goal is to push Market Street’s energy westward to build a thriving and safe community that will eventually extend into the troubled West Center City area.

“In one year, we’ve accomplished quite a bit,” says Carrie W. Gray, managing director of Wilmington Renaissance. But most of that work has been of the behind-the-scenes variety, pouring the foundation for projects just now getting under way.

But, as Gray likes to note, the process “is a marathon, not a sprint.” She points to other Wilmington success stories that took a while to take hold.

Wilmington’s Riverfront Development Corporation came to life 20 years ago, but the area didn’t become a true community until condos and apartments began to fill Justison Street about five years ago. Even so, the riverfront is hardly a finished product, with large parcels on the west side of the Christina still ripe for development.

Gray joined Wilmington Renaissance when the struggling 200 and 300 blocks of Market Street were known as the Ship’s Tavern District. Then, in 2007, the area was rebranded as the LOMA Design District, new businesses opened, second- and third-floor apartments filled up, and the revitalization triggered a design and technology boomlet that has edged north on Market beyond Rodney Square.

“When we talked about LOMA 15 years ago, we were looked at like we had two heads,” Gray says. “Now LOMA still has some evolution to go through, but that area is just night and day from what it was.”

The first sign of progress is the Willing Street Artist Village, a community of three single-family homes and eight condos along Fifth, Sixth and Washington streets now being rehabbed by Interfaith Community Housing of Delaware. More than $1 million in grants from the state’s Downtown Development District program and the Delaware State Housing Authority’s Strong Neighborhoods Fund are helping underwrite the project, whose cost is now estimated at $2.3 million, according to Gary Pollio, Interfaith’s executive director. Those subsidies will help keep the units affordable, with the one-bedroom condos likely selling for about $65,000 and the largest single-family home for about $145,000.

 From left: Interfaith Community Housing of Delaware housing development manager Omar Faust,
Wilmington Renaissance Corporation managing director Carrie Gray, interior designer Katie O’Hara
and Interfaith executive director Gary Pollio.

One home and two condos should be complete this month, with summer occupancy possible, and the project should be wrapped up by next spring. 

Interfaith plans to market the units primarily to artists and creatives, and each unit will have an area designed as an art studio. Interfaith has retained 30-something Katie O’Hara, who has made her mark on several commercial projects on Market Street, to handle interior design of the century-old structures.

“We’re hoping to achieve a very attractive mix of the historic with the artsy and a little bit of industrial,” Pollio says. O’Hara isn’t tipping her hand yet, other than to say, “I hope to surprise people in the best way with a combination of materials and colors.”

Head north on Washington Street to Ninth, where social services agency Connections CSP, which has a huge footprint in the district, operates Marcella’s House, a residence for up to 31 homeless veterans. The building’s north wall, easily visible from downtown high-rise offices, will soon be adorned with a mural created under the leadership of Philadelphia muralist Eric Okdeh. 

Muralist Eric Okdeh will lead the effort to create a
mural on the Marcella’s House residence for homeless
veterans at Washington and Ninth streets. 

Veterans and neighborhood residents are helping with the mural, which will have a freedom theme. Training for participants is under way. The mural will be painted on parachute cloth and sealed to the wall, a relatively new technique that will enable the art to better withstand the elements, Gray says.

As Okdeh works on the Marcella’s House mural, he will also be training the artists and community members working on the projects along the Seventh Street Art Bridge—projects that Wilmington City Councilman Nnamdi Chukwuocha, who, with his twin brother Albert Mills, is also Delaware’s poet laureate, says the training serves the dual purpose of engaging residents in change while transforming the community.

Wilmington artist Terrance Vann, who grew up in the Cool Spring and West Center City neighborhoods, will work on a 60- by 35-foot mural on the side of a group of rowhouses at Seventh and Windsor streets. That’s actually a block outside the Creative District boundary, but the goal of the Art Bridge is to establish a creative link between Market Street and West Center City. 

“It’s right in the community I come from, so I’m happy to be able to share my art with the city,” says Vann, who will turn 25 in May.

Across the street from Vann’s mural, Andre Reyneard Hinton will develop a community garden that incorporates artistic improvements to a 90-foot-long, 3-foot-high fence.

Brothers Corei and Crae Washington, who paint under the Smashed Label brand, will create a 60- by 20-foot mural on the cinder block wall of a parking lot at Seventh and Tatnall. “We like to take dark subjects and make them bright,” says Crae Washington. The mural will be themed on the words of poet Maya Angelou, “Nothing can dim the light that shines from within.”

The fourth Art Bridge project will be a series of installations along a 5-foot-high chain link fence bordering a vacant lot at Seventh and West. The New Wilmington Art Association, comprised of artists Jessi Taylor, Anne Yoncha and Jen Hintz, will work with neighborhood residents to create musical instruments out of household objects and mount them to the fence. “It’s a fence that’s not a barrier,” Taylor says. “Everybody who walks by can interact with it.”

The plan calls for creating three sets of installations, each one to remain on display for four months, and to organize a series of plays and presentations that will draw residents to the lot, Taylor says.

While the outdoor art projects take shape in spring and summer, work will begin inside an inauspicious single-story storage building at 803 West St. on a facility that exemplifies the meaning of the Creative District—the NextFab makerspace.

Philadelphia-based NextFab, which Gray likes to describe as “a high school woodshop on steroids,” will be “a magnet for creatives to come to Wilmington, a great sparkplug for what the Creative District is all about,” says Jed Hatfield, president of Colonial Parking, which owns the building.

Financed in part by a $350,000 start-up grant from the Delaware Economic Development Office, NextFab’s satellite site in Wilmington will offer many of the attractions that have already tempted Delaware crafters to visit its space in Philadelphia. Members will pay monthly fees, ranging from $49 to $359, depending on anticipated usage, for access to a warehouse filled with woodworking and metalworking tools, with a layer of 21st-century technology on top—things like  3D and large-format printers, CAD software and laser cutters.

Though the focus is on digital manufacturing, using computer designs in digital format to drive robotic tools, NextFab founder Evan Malone says the wood shop, with its saws, sanders, drills and routers, “is a great entry point for people who are nervous about making things for themselves for the first time.”

Those who have visited NextFab in Philadelphia say the site will attract everyone from weekend hobbyists to professional crafters who couldn’t afford all the equipment that NextFab can put under one roof. Users will have to take safety training before using the gear, and NextFab staff will also offer classes on a variety of topics. “It’s a great way for people to learn,” says Ryan Harrington, education coordinator at 1313 Innovation, the year-old coworking space in Hercules Plaza. 

NextFab’s opening date remains a moving target, depending on how much work is required to get the new site in shape. Expect to hear more between August and the end of the year.

Next door to NextFab is the 801 West Gallery, a new venue for artists operated by Connections CSP, which has administrative offices and a clinic in the building. Some of the gallery’s exhibits have featured the work of Connections’ consumers, says Jessica Schulte, the organization’s art engagement coordinator.

“We’re working closely with Chris White Gallery and the Creative Vision Factory,” says Alan Matas, Connections’ property and real estate development manager. Both the White gallery and Vision Factory, on Shipley Street, predate planning of the Creative District. About a third of the members at Creative Vision Factory, which offers individuals with behavioral health disorders an opportunity for self-expression, empowerment and recovery through the arts, are users of Connections’ services, says Michael Kalmbach, Creative Vision Factory executive director. 

One block to the east, at 800 Tatnall St., “Two young guys are bootstrapping it on their own,” Gray says.

Artist Ave Station, the small coworking space created by John Naughton and Jason Aviles, is the first individual initiative in the district undertaken by artists without subsidies or prodding by the district’s sponsoring agencies. “This shows that other people believe in it,” says Laura Semmelroth, Creative District strategist for Wilmington Renaissance.

Naughton, a residential commercial painter who grew up on the city’s West Side, bought the building in November and began talking with his friend Aviles, operator of the Flyogi yoga studio, about how to put it to use. As residents of Shipley Lofts, the city’s first affordable live-work community for artists, “We’ve seen the struggle of artists trying to make it work when they don’t have a dedicated space” to practice their craft, Aviles says.

Their solution was to turn the ground floor of the building into a coworking gallery that can host up to eight artists, who pay $150 or $250 a month, depending on the services they use. The basement, with concrete flooring and a series of storage closets, is a workspace “where artists can get dirty, get messy,” Aviles says. “We intend to keep it raw.”

On the second and third floors are studio apartments that Naughton is renting out. The ideal, he says, would be to have a pair of artists living upstairs and using the gallery and basement for their work.

Naughton and Aviles see their venture as a model other artists could adopt.  “We don’t want to be the only Artist Ave in the district,” Aviles says. “There are a lot of empty buildings here that artists could use.”

While not aimed directly at creatives, a major construction project on the district’s northeast corner is bound to turn heads and give the area a critical residential mass. On the site of the former Midtown Parking Garage, fronting Ninth between Shipley and Orange, the Buccini/Pollin Group is building the 200-unit Residences at Midtown Park, a luxury apartment and retail complex expected to be completed in late 2017.

That project, coupled with the imminent completion of some current construction in the 800 block of Market Street, will lead to creation of a zigzag of attractive connectors from Market to Tatnall streets. “All these cut-throughs and alleyways will have a distinctive look and feel,” Gray says, giving pedestrians an alternative to merely strolling along Eighth or Ninth street.

The variety of projects underway may justify the initial optimism about the Creative District, but the absence of any substantive projects for Shipley and Fourth streets, not to mention the many vacant lots and buildings in between, demonstrates how much more there is to be done.

There already are some expressions of concern. Although he is friends with many of the artists who seem to be benefiting from Creative District initiatives, Kalmbach says he’s starting to feel that the project is “a corporate-driven development tool for one of the city’s most volatile neighborhoods.”

For the effort to achieve its stated goals, he says, artists must have seats at the table as key decisions are made. “If we allow the banks to drive that conversation, if we allow the developers to drive that conversation, I know where it’s going to go.”

Aviles expresses a related concern: the importance of keeping current members of the community, both residents and businesses, in the loop. “What do you do with members of the community who are not creatives? That’s a very important conversation,” Aviles says. “The Creative District can’t happen without the participation and trust of the community.”

Semmelroth, the Creative District strategist, is mindful of these concerns. There is always the chance, she admits, that revitalization can make a neighborhood so popular that its current residents can no longer afford to live there. However, she says, “Whenever we’ve talked about housing, it has always been about vacant buildings. We’re not trying to push anyone out.”

As for the businesses, most of the smaller shopkeepers she has spoken to “are excited to have [housing] vacancies filled with potential customers.” And, she adds, “If they see things getting better, they will do more to improve their properties.”

But the route to revitalization, no matter how well mapped on paper, is long and can take unexpected turns. 

“I don’t think cities are ever done,” Semmelroth says. “They’re living and breathing, just like we are. They’re constantly evolving and changing.”

Colonial Parking’s Hatfield, who also sits on the Wilmington Renaissance board, sees the Riverfront’s 20 years of development as an apt basis of comparison for the Creative District. And he sees the Creative District as the logical next step to what’s happening on Market Street, where the transformation of upstairs spaces into apartments has given downtown a growing residential mass.

“Look at NextFab, the housing Interfaith is doing. People will see that real things are happening, that it’s not just a conversation, and it will just accelerate the demand and activity around it,” Hatfield says. “We’re really about 10 years away—but 10 years goes pretty quick sometimes.”

Vann, the artist, hopes activity in the Creative District spurs more investment in the city, because that will ultimately give residents more opportunities to succeed. “We’re trying to create a culture of positive energy,” he says.

“Small changes can make a big difference to get the city moving in a better direction,” designer O’Hara says.

“I think it’s just the beginning. It won’t be long before people take notice and say, ‘Wow, there’s good stuff going on in Wilmington.’ I think it’s really cool.”

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