If you’re looking for perspective on where Wilmington’s Market Street has been, there are few places better to go than the Delaware Historical Society, which has kept a presence along or near the city’s central commercial corridor since 1864. “We have certainly seen it rise and fall and rise and fall several times,” says executive director Joan Reynolds Hoge.
If city leaders, merchants and downtown boosters get their wish, the Market Street strip is again on the rise, this time almost entirely at the hands of development and building management moguls Buccini/Pollin Group.
Hometown boys Chris and Rob Buccini have already taken their fondness for the old stomping grounds to the extremes of real estate amour by dropping nearly $500 million to spark a residential building boom on the Christina Riverfront with Justison Landing and the Residences at Christina Landing, then snatching up a substantial number of landmark buildings in Wilmington’s center, the Nemours Building and the Brandywine Building among them.
The company has since turned its eyes to Market Street, the link between those two zones and the one most in need of love and attention. In this instance, love and attention means dollars—more than $170 million—to buy nearly 30 properties between Fourth and Ninth streets. And BPG is spooning the woo, promising a long-term commitment that all parties hope will leave the others with a satisfied glow for many years after.
But in buying nine buildings along the 800 block of Market Street to convert into mid- to high-end residential space with retail on the street level, it might seem BPG has skipped a traditional step in the revitalization of a neighborhood: luring the hipsters. Don’t be so sure.
There was a time, say 10 years ago, when the artistic colonization pattern was still visibly intact in places like Philadelphia. For example, the Northern Liberties neighborhood, just north of eastern Center City, was considered one big post-industrial vacancy at the end of the 1990s. As the century closed, it found its bearings once again as the home of working artists.
Many of those vacancies were in cheap row houses or warehouses that could be easily converted to loft live-work spaces by highly motivated tenants willing to invest their own ingenuity and elbow grease. Artists, Web-heads, writers, musicians, entrepreneurs and rebels set up camp. Then blossomed bars and boutiques designed to serve the neighborhood’s new working class with microbrews and cool threads.
And so, like land barons licking their chops over the commercial prospects of the newly settled American frontier, local developers began to see the neighborhood, which had been written off, was “safe” for the sorts of projects they envisioned. Big money flowed in as developers staked their claims, and many of those improvised loft spaces became high-end condos with granite countertops, stainless steel appliances and new tenants with fatter wallets.
Having part of your city colonized by artists and their ilk is the very thing city planners fantasize about. Don’t count Wilmington out on having given it a good shot. The continued success of The Grand Opera House, the presence of the Delaware College of Art and Design, Christina Center for the Cultural Arts and Bromberg & Associates, the violin shop of rock-folk-blues-bluegrass player David Bromberg, are testaments to the city’s effort.
But after years of chasing some sort of creative class credibility for Market Street, some might wonder if Wilmington has given up on trying to make Market hip by organic means in favor of going straight to the high-dollar end result.
James Lecky, executive director of DCAD, runs a school full of exactly the kind of young people the city would love to have living above shops on Market Street and in the surrounding neighborhoods. Unfortunately for the city, many of those students move on to other institutions to finish undergraduate work after completing associate degrees at DCAD.
Lecky is finding, however, that good experiences in Wilmington and connections from DCAD are drawing some graduates back to the area. Yet he doesn’t see many of the former students just starting their careers being able to afford the new BPG units, because the low- to moderate-income housing that struggling young artists need isn’t there.
“Honestly, I don’t think that’s been part of the mix yet, but I think it’s part of the consideration,” Lecky says. “If you are really attracting people who are able to make a living in the community, then the idea of having affordable options is a real issue.”
Lecky says it seems like Wilmington hopes to skip a step in the traditional evolution of an urban neighborhood.
“When you look at the models of places like SoHo and Chelsea [in New York City], there’s cheap housing and cheap live-work spaces,” he says. “The residents bring all the services that make the neighborhood desirable, then typically get priced out of the market.”
One way he is addressing the affordability issue is by helping convert Shipley Loft at 701 Shipley St. to the sort of housing that students and young artists can afford.
“I think there have to be options, there has to be a range, and I think student housing is part of that mix,” he says. “It’s a different element, but it has to be part of the mix. It can’t be a monoculture.”
But if you think BPG is shooting for monoculture—the Wilmington stereotype of the button-down banker or corporate lawyer pushing out the variety stores and fried chicken joints—you’re mistaken. What BPG has done instead is install its dream resident to coordinate the project.
Jackie Ivy, vice president and creative director for BPG’s Market Street Initiative, could serve as the template for the new Market Street resident: a 30-something woman who has a résumé long and varied enough for three people twice her age. Turn-ons include architecture, live music, funky office decor, WXPN, and helping her bosses create an urban utopia that celebrates cultural and commercial diversity.
The last thing BPG wants from the Market Street project is sameness, Ivy stresses. She fully expects the new units, both residential and commercial, to be filled by creative-class types drawn by the project’s focus on green building (hopes are to have all the new units LEED certified) and who relish the idea of being the first wave of a new urban revolution.
“Those are the people willing to take a risk because they are willing to set up a new business,” she says. Ivy notes that BPG’s recent moves are far from many “new urbanism” projects that attempt to manufacture a Main Street vibe in a brand new suburban development. “You can smell an authentic experience versus a corporate package,” she says. “I think we can make it work for us. I think we can make it that authentic experience. It’s got to grow from that.”
A big key to the project’s success will be encouraging new merchants to set up on Market Street to serve the needs of the new residents. Ivy acknowledges that right now, it’s a huge hurdle, but that combining new businesses with existing ones would be the ideal situation.
“If you were opening a business in Wilmington right now, for you to come to Market Street, you’d be a pioneer,” she says. As for the existing businesses, “I want them to stay. I think it goes back to that authentic mix. You don’t want it to be a homogenous neighborhood. Unfortunately, there are lots of empty storefronts. If we can just fill the empty ones, I’m not looking to get rid of the existing ones.”
Expanding the cultural landscape of Market Street is another major goal, Ivy notes. BPG’s purchase and planned revitalization of the old Queen Theater at Fifth and Market streets will help immensely, she says, by providing a music venue in Wilmington that can feature touring bands without the fixed seating restrictions of a place like The Grand. Plans to convert the old WSFS building at Ninth and Market to a Starwood group-owned Aloft Hotel, scheduled to open in January 2010, will up the hip factor even more.
As head of an organization that tracks, among other things, Market Street’s past, Hoge agrees that tackling the absence of nightlife will be a big challenge to improve its future, because people won’t go to Market Street if they don’t feel safe. Not surprisingly, when visitors are pressed, their safety concerns emerge as a result of what many regard as ancient history and current violent crime.
Ivy is aware of that, knowing too well that saying “Market Street” is all it takes to turn some people off. Her solution? A new name for the neighborhood.
A possibility she suggests is Crosby Hill, taken from the former Crosby & Hill Department store at 605 Market St., now the site of Sneaker Villa and a property, not surprisingly, owned by BPG.
“I would love for people to at first go, ‘What is Crosby Hill,’ and to maybe come see it because they see an ad and they think it’s cool,” Ivy says.