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The Birth of Cool: Wilmington Grows in Popularity

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Mike Hare recalls a time, not so long ago, when it was easier to attract people from West Chester Pa., to a Blue Rocks game than it was to draw someone to Frawley Stadium from Bellefonte. No more, says Hare. Today, Wilmington is cool.

“The Riverfront is a miracle,” he says. “Thank God.” So are the new-ish LOMA and the emerging downtown, but we’ll come to those in a minute. First, back to Hare.

A former city councilman who has lived all of his 53 years in the same house, two blocks from St. Elizabeth church and school, Hare had been working for the Delaware Economic Development Office since 1989 when, in 1995, he was assigned to the newly minted Riverfront Development Corporation. RDC was formed by an act of the legislature under then-Gov. Tom Carper to transform the old brownfield and tumbledown buildings into a major destination for fun seekers.

“What a gift,” Hare says. “The city you grew up in, you have a chance to transform it.”

As the riverfront started to take off, so did other projects. A Ships Tavern District on lower Market Street was planned to bridge the city’s main commercial street with the river. The feasibility of a trolley was studied to link Rodney Square to the river via Market Street.

Then brothers Rob and Chris Buccini—self-described students of cities—came home. After almost 20 years of real estate development from its base in New York City, their Buccini/Pollin Group bought the Nemours building in 1999. The old office building might have seemed a strange investment for a group that wanted to reinvigorate residential development in the city, but it wasn’t long before the first of two renovations began and other BPG projects launched.

It bought the old Delaware Trust building in 2002, intent on converting it into apartments. A couple years later, BPG started buying properties on Market Street between Fourth and Ninth. It now owns 29, many of which have been or are being converted to upstairs apartments with street-level retail spaces. In 2006 it built 500 Delaware Ave., the first new high-rise in Wilmington since time out of mind.

At the same time—10 years after redevelopment of the Christina riverfront got underway—BPG built The Residences at Christina Landing (173 apartments and 63 townhomes) and 185 condominiums at River Tower by the Market Street Bridge. A dilapidated stretch of riverfront instantly started to look like a gateway to the city.

In 2008, 220 apartments became available at The Residences at Justison Landing, as did 126 condos at Justison Landing. It was a rough time, thanks to the mortgage crisis and ensuing recession, but things kept rolling. And BPG wasn’t  the only mover. Other investors opened the coIN Loft cooperative workspace at 605 N. Market St. in 2010, followed soon after by Downtown Visions’ 23-unit Shipley Lofts apartments in 2010.

All of that was preceded by a small downtown restaurant renaissance in the late 1990s, the establishment of the Delaware College of Art and Design in what is now a nascent “creative district,” the new New Castle County Courthouse on King Street and new attractions on the riverfront—some pioneering restaurants, a market, what is now the Chase Center on the Riverfront, the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts, the Delaware Children’s Museum, Pettinaro Inc.’s stunning renovation of the Gates Building and other properties. That’s not to mention pre-existing attractions, such as the playhouse at the Hotel du Pont, The Delaware Theatre Company and The Grand Opera House, which had stepped up its programming in a big way. One could go on.

Somehow, much of that was lost on some Delawareans. It was apparent that the physical character of the riverfront was changing, but, biased as many have always been against the city, they weren’t sensitive to a shift in the vibe.

I’ll admit, even as a proud Wilmington resident and cheerleader, I wasn’t that hip until, one night a few years ago, I attended a fundraiser for the Light Up the Queen Foundation. Out with a friend, we entered a nondescript storefront on Market Street, then took a perfectly ordinary elevator up. It seemed an inauspicious start, yet when the doors opened, we were greeted by a large open space with great art on the walls, a sort of pop-up bar and a lively yet civil mob that gathered to hear New Orleans favorite Trombone Shorty play.

The scene felt a world away from Wilmington, yet we couldn’t have been deeper in it. A few short months later Shorty was back, strutting down the street with his horn soon after singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke played at the groundbreaking of the World Cafe Live at the Queen—in the middle of Market Street, in the middle of a workday, with hundreds of very excited people gathered ’round. It seemed to me that Wilmington had crossed some threshold of cool.

A couple things may have sputtered over the past 20 years, but in the end, Wilmington has been better for it. The city had to scale back the trolley program. The Ships Tavern District may have foundered on the rocks early on, but it is now the thriving LOMA.

“Making tall shining glass towers—that’s not how you change a city,” Chris Buccini says. “It’s about getting the right coffee shop, the right music venue, a car share, a bike share.”

Downtown Wilmington now has the coffee shops and music, and plenty of people—urbane locals and newcomers have caught on—in numbers sufficient to support even more new housing. By the end of the year, BPG will have created well over 1,000 units, with more on the way soon, and it aims to attract five new restaurants downtown over the next 12 months. The goal: 5,000 new residential units in five years. A good indicator of the potential: The planned Residences at Mid-Town, where the old Mid-Town garage was recently razed, spreads downtown development beyond Market. “It is a very big deal,” Buccini says.

So how cool is Wilmington these days? Hare, now senior vice president at BPG who describes the improvement of Wilmington as “almost a moral obligation,” notes that the first lease on BPG’s new 608 MKT building was signed by a resident of Hockessin.

Which is cool, but what is even cooler is that the lessee plans to commute out of the city to work in Hockessin.

 


Photograph by Laura Bolen

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