photo illustration by photographer John Lewis
It’s a great story and an exciting one to tell: Private developers have invested approximately $1 billion dollars in the city of Wilmington over the past five years, and the signs of revitalization are everywhere you look.
“This surge of investment in the city in such a brief time period is unprecedented,” says Joe DiPinto, director of Wilmington’s Office of Economic Development. “We haven’t seen growth comparable to this since World War II, at a time when the population was growing at a rapid rate.”
Like the actor who becomes an overnight sensation, the city of Wilmington has found itself in the spotlight. Private developers such as Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, Pettinaro, Buccini/Pollin Group, Preservation Initiatives, and The Commonwealth Group—loosely referred to as The Big Five—demonstrate their commitment to Wilmington’s revitalization with each new project.
“The steps of progress grew and grew until we have a billion dollars in what feels like overnight,” says Carrie Gray, managing director of Wilmington Renaissance Corporation, emphasizing that none of this would be possible “without the support of our city government.”
“I remember when Mayor Jim Baker was on city council and how he spoke of bringing people back into the city to live downtown on Market Street, on the Riverfront and around the city,” says Beverley Baxter, executive director of the Committee of 100. That was 15 years ago. “People thought he was nuts, but look at what’s happening.”
“He had great foresight and was a little ahead of the trend,” says Chris Leinberger, an expert in urban revitalization at The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “The market wants what the mayor is attempting to provide.”
People want to find everything they need to live, work and play within a radius of 30,000 square feet, about the size of New Castle County’s Christiana Mall. National research shows that 30 percent to 50 percent of people want to live in a walkable urban environment, but it’s only available for 5 percent to 10 percent of them. “There’s pent up demand for it,” says Leinberger, “and it’s up to the city and the real estate community to provide it.”
Leinberger says success is best achieved through private-public partnerships, meaning that, though the public sector may kick off the effort, it’s up to the private sector to quickly move the ball forward. That’s what the city and developers here are doing, and national research shows that’s what works.
Leinberger recently visited
On The Riverfront
Since their days on city council in the 1970s and early ’80s, Baker and DiPinto have advocated development of the Riverfront and the vitality it could give to the community. About the same time, builder Verino Pettinaro purchased 86 acres of riverfront land for $1.2 million. Property values now range from $1.3 to $1.5 million an acre. Pettinaro, like Baker and DiPinto, believed in the riverfront’s future.
Development on the
The RDC joined forces with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and the city of
“DNREC has enjoyed a remarkably good working relationship with the city of
Getting to the Riverfront is easy, thanks to a partnership between the Wilmington Area Planning Commission, the Delaware Department of Transportation and the city of
The Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard Modifications Project was critically important to the success of the Riverfront because it was, until recently, effectively cut off from the downtown. Connections to the Riverfront were reestablished at
. The Wilmington Initiatives also added new lighting, planted new trees and added brick sidewalks. The entire pedestrian experience and access to the Riverfront was enhanced, making it a more attractive location for employers such as ING Direct, Barclays Bank and AAA Mid-Atlantic, as well as for people living or working in downtown, who are now seen walking to the Riverfront Market and area restaurants for lunch and dinner.
“In the past there were questions about whether the Riverfront would work. Now the question is how well,” says Mike Purzycki, executive director of Riverfront Development Corporation. “It was a big milestone for us to attract top quality employers down here.”
According to Purzycki, 3,000 people work on the Riverfront, and “the fact that we have residential building going on is a testament of our success.” Residential is a follower of commercial and retail development.
An economic impact study conducted by the