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Making a New Wilmington

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“There is a large percentage of the population that thinks Wilmington is a lost cause,” David Wilk says.

But don’t put him in that group.

Wilk, a real estate adviser and academic, has an optimism about the city that’s embedded in his DNA. “I grew up on Market Street,” Wilk says.

His great-grandfather was the legendary H. Feinberg, who opened his first H. Feinberg’s store in Wilmington in 1893 and whose son, William, made a decision in 1966 to keep the family’s furniture store on King Street. Soon after moving the store to 705 Market St. after the King Street property was targeted to become part of a civic center complex, Wilk and his grandfather watched from the door as the 1968 riots devastated the downtown. 

The civic center never materialized, but Wilk believes there are many great things going on in Wilmington now—on the Riverfront, along Market Street, in the new Creative District and other neighborhood pockets—but their impact is limited because there’s little cohesion among them, limited participation among stakeholders and a leadership void at the top. That’s why he says, “We’ve got to get people to think in a different way.”

Major urban revitalization efforts typically focus on a city’s downtown core, but Wilk believes it is essential for Wilmington to look not only at Rodney Square and Market Street but also at the surrounding neighborhoods. State and city officials can talk all they want about luring more big businesses to town, he says, but unless those businesses find the entire city—its neighborhoods, workforce, schools, parks and services—attractive, they are not going to make the move.

“Delaware, especially Wilmington, has a major marketing problem,” says Dan Young, a Wilmington University marketing professor and consultant. Try as it might by creating and promoting restaurants, entertainment and other attractions, “If people don’t trust the area, they won’t move in.”

“We have to lead ourselves out of the situation we’re in,” Wilk says, so he has organized a symposium for April 21 at the Hotel du Pont. Titled “‘Place-Making’ and Reimagining the City of Wilmington,” it follows a model he has employed in other cities that are striving to create new identities.

As its title suggests, everybody needs a place to make a home. Creating communities that are livable and welcoming to people of all economic, educational and social strata is the best way to ensure a thriving future, Wilk contends.

“Nationally, and in Wilmington, the gap between rich and poor, between strong and weak neighborhoods, is getting worse,” he says.

To reverse the trend, “Wilmington needs a transforming, not more of the same,” Wilk says. That will require leaders in business, real estate, government, education, the arts, social services and others to adjust their traditional thought processes and collaborate.

“Too often, social services are in one silo, business and developers in another silo, arts and culture in another, schools in another. That doesn’t work,” says Lindsay Thompson, an associate professor in the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who will be one of the panelists at the symposium.

Thompson has been working on a revitalization model called City Lab that has been used in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and other challenged cities. It involves having residents, churches, businesses and agencies working together to assess a neighborhood’s strengths and needs, then develop place-making economic development strategies and other tactics to revitalize. Wilk would like to bring the City Lab process to Wilmington. He hopes the symposium can provide some impetus.

“If everyone is participating, you’ll be taking steps toward developing Wilmington as a truly dynamic economy,” says Michael Casson, associate professor of business at Delaware State University, another symposium panelist.

Whether talking about small business development or workforce development the effort must be inclusive and equitable, Casson says. Strategies that reduce unemployment and enhance workers’ skills can strengthen individual neighborhoods, and the entire city, making it more attractive to businesses that are considering relocation. 

“Neighborhoods are the building blocks of cities, and they’re built from the ground up,” Thompson says. “You just can’t impose a neighborhood on people. It won’t work.”

Unfortunately, Thompson adds, “Not all developers take community conversations seriously.” Indeed, Wilk says, for Wilmington to successfully transform itself, the real estate community will have to think not only about buying, selling and leasing office space downtown but also about helping ensure that areas like the Eastside, the West Side, Quaker Hill, Trolley Square, Browntown and Brandywine Village become (or remain) livable communities.

“Taking an undervalued neighborhood and reversing it takes an incredible amount of work,” he says. “You need someone on the ground, willing to do the work, to accomplish that.”

In some parts of the city, that sort of work is happening. The West Side Grows Together initiative is helping to unify Cool Spring, Hilltop, Little Italy and nearby neighborhoods. Other grassroots neighborhood planning efforts include Eastside Rising and West Center City Futures. Last year, a coalition of businesses and nonprofits, led by the Wilmington Renaissance Corporation, rolled out a master plan for a Creative District in the area bounded by Shipley, Fourth, Washington and Ninth streets.

Though there are similarities among the initiatives and their leaders do communicate with each other, there is no overall coordination to facilitate replicating ideas that work in one community in another neighborhood, nor have they been consolidated into a citywide master plan. Using an approach like City Lab would be a positive step toward that, Wilk says.

How might it work? Though no two neighborhoods are alike, one of the first is to identify an iconic underutilized property that could be repurposed to serve as a neighborhood hub. 

“Hubs will be the heart of place-making in neighborhoods in the future,” a venue for residents to work, for kids to get meaningful supervision after school, for community groups to gather at night and on weekends, Wilk says. As an example, Wilk mentions the Brandywine Village neighborhood and one of its focal points, the Cathedral Church of St. John, the now-shuttered former headquarters of the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware.

“It could become a safe place for children, a safe place for seniors, a wellness and nutrition site with links to Christiana Care and Nemours, a technology hub, a coworking space, a commercial kitchen, a place for after-school activities,” Wilk says.

Or, he says, imagine Wilmington’s Eastside repurposed as a neighborhood that emphasizes innovations in education, focused on the Howard High School of Technology, and beautification projects that would foster a safe, walkable link between Howard and Old Swedes Church and the Kalmar Nyckel Shipyard.

“You’re not going to turn the Eastside into Trolley Square, but you can turn it into a really neat place to live,” Wilk says. 

With the DuPont Co. having moved its headquarters out of the city and leaving the iconic DuPont Building in the hands of its Chemours spinoff, downtown Wilmington could well be facing its most unsettling change in more than a century. Wilk expects the DuPont Building to be sold sometime this year. Under new ownership, he says, a portion of the building might endure as a hotel, perhaps with some high-luxury condos like the Four Seasons or the Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia, but equally intriguing is the idea of a “super hub” that would build on the somewhat disconnected tech corridor that is emerging on Market Street and the technology services demanded by the city’s two current strengths, its legal and financial communities.

“It’s the perfect place for a Wilmington version of the University City Science Center,” the urban renewal project that has become Philadelphia’s science and technology hub and helped a neighborhood blossom with retail and residential opportunities, Wilk says.

University City Science Center CEO Stephen Tang sees the potential. “You’ll need an aligned interest of anchor institutions that are committed to making it happen,” he says.

Whether the hub for a revitalized Wilmington is focused on science, technology or some other industry, Tang says, “this is something that should be done, that must be done, to address what could grow into a crisis for the entire state and for Wilmington in particular.”   


If you go

“Place-Making” and Reimagining the City of Wilmington

What: A symposium featuring business executives, academics and government leaders discussing the role of place-making economic development strategies and real estate optimization in creating a revised city of Wilmington.
When: Thursday, April 21, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Where: Hotel du Pont
Admission: $60-$125 (includes lunch)

“Wilmington needs a transorming, not more of the same,” says David Wilk, a real estate adviser and academic.
(Photo by Ron Dubick)

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