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The Wilmington Riverfront's Unexpected Evolution

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Mike Purzycki, Mike Hare and Greg Pettinaro were all present at the creation, but none at the time gave much thought to what Wilmington’s riverfront might look like 20 years downstream.

Purzycki came on board in the spring of 1996 as the first executive director of the Riverfront Development Corporation, created a year earlier by the Delaware General Assembly. Hare, who was involved in early planning for the riverfront while working with the Delaware Economic Development Office, became Purzycki’s top aide, a position he held until 2008, when he became an executive with the Buccini/Pollin Group, one of the riverfont’s primary developers. And Pettinaro could make a claim to have been there before either Purzycki or Hare—his father, Verino Pettinaro, began purchasing land there in 1985, including the site that would become Frawley Stadium in 1993.

“We all felt there would be something,” Purzycki says, “but I can’t say we knew exactly what it would look like.”

“We had so many ideas of what it could be, of what it should be,” Pettinaro says.

But Purzycki says he knew all along that it would never become what the dreamers of the early 1990s conceived—a mini-version of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor developed on the east side of the river, closer to Market Street and the train station.

“In the early days,” Hare recalls, “we walked through the weeds and said, ‘Here’s where the exhibition center will be. Here’s where the Riverwalk will be.’”

“It was a hostile place—abandoned buildings, homeless people, a collapsed infrastructure,” Purzycki says. But he and others believed there would eventually be a movie theater, a hotel and many amenities far more attractive than a brownfield largely filled with warehouses and the Wilmington Public Works Yard. 

Over 20 years, much has come and gone. A highly touted exhibition center lasted a few years, then morphed into a multipurpose facility for meetings, conventions, weddings and other social events. Kahunaville prospered for a while, but nightlife eventually gave way to what is now the Delaware Children’s Museum. The outlet shops, hampered by a lack of access and an inability to achieve the critical mass to make it a bargain hunters’ destination, never caught on, but the storefronts have been transformed into a healthy office complex.

“The failures are all part of the success story,” Pettinaro says. “If we hadn’t built the outlets, we wouldn’t have the offices there now.”

“Every project became something wonderful,” Purzycki says. Not only did the failed exhibit center become the Chase Center on the Riverfront, but when insurance giant AIG bailed at the last minute on plans for a high-rise office on the east side of the river, Buccini/Pollin moved in and built the Christina Landing townhouses. 

What hardly anyone expected, says Megan McGlinchey, the RDC’s director of operations, was that the riverfront, conceived as a tourist attraction, would mature into a family-friendly destination, with not only the children’s museum, movie theater and the Stratosphere Trampoline Park, but also miniature golf in the summer, ice skating in the winter, Tubman-Garrett Park next to the train station and the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge and the DuPont Environmental Education Center on the south end.

“Many people don’t realize there’s a 212-acre wildlife refuge where they can come and enjoy their surroundings—and see bald eagles, ospreys, beavers and maybe a river otter,” says John Harrod, manager of the environmental center. Many people might not know about the center, but it still drew 60,000 visitors last year.

The riverfront’s outdoor attractions draw about 170,000 people a year, and the Chase Center another 160,000, McGlinchey says. 

In a couple of years, after the state Department of Transportation builds a long-awaited bridge to the riverfront from South Market Street, visitor figures should rise even higher. DelDOT officials say the bridge project, which will cost $30 million to $35 million, will begin late this year and should be completed in early 2019. The bridge will have one vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian lane in each direction.

A $30 million to $35 million bridge project, which will connect the riverfront to South Market
Street as this rendering shows, will begin late this year and be completed in early 2019.

The bridge will provide easier access from U.S 13 and I-495 and should help ease the traffic bottlenecks that now occur after ballgames at Frawley Stadium and big events at the Chase Center. It will also enable residents of south Wilmington to access the riverfront without taking a circuitous route on Martin Luther King Boulevard.

And it will provide another route for business travelers and conference attendees to reach the two new hotels —a 200-room Marriott and a 100-room Homewood Suites—that Buccini/Pollin announced in late February that it plans to build.

The new bridge may have a far greater impact on the east side of the river, where Jeff Flynn, Wilmington’s economic development director, and others are envisioning a mix of office, retail and residential uses, perhaps with another river walk, a picnic area and other park-like amenities. 

“Having through traffic opens up opportunities. It will even change the way the river feels,” Purzycki says, noting the riverfront’s current tilt toward its west side. “But if you look across the river and all of a sudden see some attractive places that convey a sense of energy…” His voice trails, leaving the rest to his listener’s imagination.

John Shipman, executive director of The Delaware Contemporary (formerly Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts), knows a lot about the importance of that sense of energy. Soon after DCCA moved to the Riverfront in 1999, he signed on as the center’s exhibition curator and, with his wife, Valerie, lived in an apartment at the center for three years. 

“We might have been the first residents of the [revived] riverfront,” Shipman says. “We worked here, but we lived the rest of our lives outside the riverfront. It certainly didn’t have the perks it has now.”

The Riverfront Ice Skating Rink
on the Justison Landing Green

Nor did it have nearly as much foot traffic. Before leaving Wilmington 10 years ago, he recalls how he and his colleagues anticipated the opening of the AAA Mid-Atlantic headquarters across the street. They expected throngs of workers to visit the galleries on their lunch breaks. It didn’t happen.

When Shipman returned to DCCA in January 2015, he was impressed by the transformation, which was fueled largely by Buccini/Pollin’s Justison Landing residential and retail complex.

Besides 1,400 residents and 7,000 workers in the area, he says, “We’ve got restaurants, a liquor store, a variety of other services, all the resources you would have in a normal neighborhood.”

Having bodies in the street, however, doesn’t necessarily pull them into an art center, Shipman says. By being more aware of the community’s interests, and by bringing in food trucks at lunchtime and for special events, DCCA consistently beat its monthly attendance records last year, and it hopes to do the same in 2016.

Indeed, McGlinchey points to the nonprofits—DCCA, the children’s museum, the wildlife refuge, the Delaware Theatre Company and the Wilmington Youth Rowing Association—as the “unsung heroes” of the riverfront’s steady growth.

Purzycki agrees. “Without those things, you don’t have much,” he says. ”You don’t have much of a soul.”

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