Raye Jones Avery is excited about the prospect of some of her teachers being able to walk to work.
Jones Avery, executive director of the Christina Cultural Arts Center and a founder of the Kuumba Academy charter school, is talking about the new Shipley Lofts, which has created affordable housing for a community of artists in Wilmington’s downtown.
Shipley Lofts, only a couple blocks from Kuumba and exciting Market Street, is another piece of the emerging Wilmington landscape, one that continues the trend of creating a downtown where residents can live, work and play without having to commute.
Recently completed, Shipley Lofts consists of 23 apartments of almost 900 square feet each. Each unit has a studio-living room area, fully equipped kitchen and bathroom. The building also features a first-floor gallery for art shows and displays, which is used by both resident artists and artists from the community.
Shipley Lofts—originally a furniture store when it opened in 1918—is intended to be a hub for the social and commercial needs of area artists. Visual and performing artists are the target population, though occupancy is open to everyone. Monthly rent for a loft apartment is around $650, compared to as much as $1,200 for comparable units in other parts of the city. All 23 units were rented by June 2010, just weeks after opening.
“I’ve met a number of the artists living there,” says Jones Avery. “They bring a wonderfully vibrant diversity of age, ethnicity and artistic vision to the area. And yes, two of my staff are now residents there as well.”
The project developed to help realize Mayor James M. Baker’s vision of creating an artist’s colony in the heart of Wilmington. The property at Eighth and Shipley streets was transferred from Sts. Andrew and Matthew Episcopal Church, which wanted the building to be used in a way that would have a positive effect on the community.
Before the idea of an artist’s colony emerged, plans for the building called for SRO-type housing. The building was given to Interfaith Housing to develop it for single, homeless men. That project failed, so Interfaith returned the building to the church.
The high cost of rehabbing the building at first deterred investors. Then Tina Betz, cultural affairs director for the city, began discussions with the arts community about using the building as affordable housing for artists.
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“The creation of affordable housing fit our mission,” says David Holden of the Ingerman Group, the project development company. Ingermann worked with the church to develop the lofts.
Armed with a variety of tax credits, Shipley Lofts project began to take shape. More than $7 million was eventually raised for development.
The city of Wilmington contributed $400,000 to the project. The Longwood Foundation pledged an additional $400,000. “Each project of this type that receives support from the community and area financial institutions helps to move Wilmington that much closer to being the type of active and interactive city that many people have worked so hard to create,” Baker says.
“The apartments will offer great space at a downtown location that’s been dead for years,” says Holden, “and we’re replacing that dead space with a positive activity.”
Michael Kalmbach, originally “stoked” by the possibilities, has been gratified by the new energy of Shipley Street. Founder and director of the New Wilmington Art Association, Kalmbach has helped stage artists’ exhibits throughout Wilmington, mainly in empty storefronts. Now NWAA has the Shipley space, too.
“For artists to come to or remain in Wilmington, they need access to affordable space to live and work,” Kalmbach says. “Most can’t afford two rents of an apartment and a studio.”
For those who can, there’s the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts, with its studios, gift shop, conference space and cafe on the Riverfront. But Kalmbach sees Shipley Lofts as the kind of place artists in Wilmington are looking for. He believes the city has taken a big step to retaining more of its homegrown artists.
“The University of Delaware graduates about a dozen artists each year from its masters of fine arts program,” Kalmbach says. “If they can find here what they can’t find in Philly in terms of affordability, more will stay here.”
In addition to like-minded artists living in the same place, Kalmbach also sees Shipley Lofts as a conduit between artists and the larger community around them.
“We have been mounting exhibits that help show Wilmington as a place to be for the arts,” Kalmbach says. “We help contribute to the economic function of downtown.”
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“I’m certain the residents at Shipley will support us,” Jones Avery says. “I’m anticipating a lot of interaction between the Lofts, CCAC and Kuumba, just as I hope some of our instructors and artists will continue to rent those apartments.”
CCAC has already laid the groundwork for connecting the 700 block of Shipley Street with the burgeoning art and cultural community that is revitalizing downtown Wilmington.
“We’ve partnered with the annual Clifford Brown festival to develop the Clifford Brown Year Round Performing Arts Series” of concerts, Jones Avery says. “And we’ve joined with Benjamin Cannon to produce new works by emerging performing artists.”
CCAC has partnered with the Wilmington Ballet as well.
“The Ballet’s Academy of the Dance is in residence at CCAC,” says Jones Avery, who expects CCAC and Kuumba to become the academic and developmental hub for the Shipley area and specifically the renovated Queen Theater. Jones Avery’s Artists as Entrepreneurs Summit, scheduled for this fall, will recruit from among the Shipley Loft residents.
Kalmbach can envision a time when UD’s MFA program might add a third-year residency to its current two-year program, now that the city is showing signs of making artists feel at home in Wilmington. That’s a big step forward for an experimental abstract painter who once told a friend that he was “probably stuck in Wilmington” following his graduation from UD’s MFA program.
“Wilmington now is beginning to look more and more like a great place for an artist to start out,” he says. “There’s just a cool energy around the building now.There are musicians, dancers and visual artists—a great mix of talent. And each has their own story to tell.”
Kalmbach already senses the new residents taking ownership of their community.
“There’s a real possibility now for a true arts community here in the city,” he says.
Page 4: Housing that Shouldn’t be Overlooked | A gated community in the heart of the city? And a bit of Brooklyn in Wilmington? Bet on it.
Housing that Shouldn’t Be Overlooked
A gated community in the heart of the city? And a bit of Brooklyn in Wilmington? Bet on it.
With the completion of Christina Overlook and The Brownstones at Christina Overlook, Wilmington will gain two beautiful new communities that will revitalize their neighborhoods.
“There’s nothing else like them anywhere in the city,” says builder Anthony Casale of Casale Construction. “I’m more excited by this than anything else I’ve done.”
Casale was just 21 when he told then-Mayor Daniel S. Frawley and his administration was neglecting south Wilmington. Impressed, Frawley awarded Casale Wilmington’s first-ever construction loan in 1988. Casale proceeded to build four new townhouses—and he hasn’t stopped since.
His latest effort is Christina Overlook, a 33-unit gated townhome community on a 2.5-acre former brownfield near the Christina Riverfront.
“We wanted to create something different for Wilmington,” Casale says. “The units feature different exteriors to avoid a cookie-cutter look. With the gates, stone entrance and lighting, the community has a suburban feel within the city limits.”
The first eight units are to be completed in October. They will feature 1,700 square feet of living space, garage and hardwood floors. Exteriors of stucco, brick and plank siding create a unique look.
“The units are connected to inner city and the Riverfront attractions,” says Casale. “The idea was to extend Riverfront across the railroad tracks.”
Between Fifth and Sixth streets, Casale is building seven units designed to look like iconic Brooklyn brownstones. Aptly named the Brownstones at Christina Overlook, the renovated units will feature many of the same amenities as the townhomes.
Wilmington city councilman Kevin Kelley, whose district encompasses Casale’s two developments, says the projects not only fill in a former industrial site, but also represent the largest development in the area since the boom years of the 1980s.
“Christina Overlook and The Brownstones are proof that people such as Tony are willing to take the risks because of the importance of preventing Wilmington from reaching a tipping point in terms of livability,” Kelley says. “I grew up living in brownstones, as well.”
Kelly likes the idea of developing properties that will attract couples and families. Casale is committed to providing them.
“I know the potential that Riverfront provides for developing residential living in the city,’ he says. “I’m interested in moving the proximity of Riverfront farther and farther west.
Casale praises the city for its marketing efforts to attract new residents looking to live, work and recreate within an urban landscape.
Which is a lot, considering it all started with a handshake from a 21-year old and a bemused mayor who, like Casale, thought the risk was worth it.