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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.”

“Walkable Urbanism”

“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 Wilmington. He commends the city for embracing its two critical attributes: “the walkability of the downtown” and “the reason Wilmington was here in the first place: the water.”

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 Christina River had its challenges. Developers were reluctant to take on properties that had been polluted by heavy industry in the past, which would mean expensive remediation. Things began to change in the mid-’90s when the General Assembly created the Riverfront Development Corporation to foster growth along the Christina River. The RDC was to fulfill the mission of “The Vision for the Rivers,” a report from the Governor’s Task Force on the Future of the Brandywine and Christina Rivers.

The RDC joined forces with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and the city of Wilmington. Together they forged a brownfield program to remediate the land and put it back into productive use.

“DNREC has enjoyed a remarkably good working relationship with the city of Wilmington,” says Jim Poling, brownfield administrator for DNREC. “The city was a key player in the development of the program, and, with their help over the years, the program has improved, the results of which have been of benefit to other brownfield sites within the state.” The rewards of the collaboration in Wilmington are manifest along the Riverfront and in residential areas of the city.

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 Wilmington. The resulting Wilmington Initiatives is a series of projects that enhance transportation and accessibility to, and growth of, new commercial and residential development.

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 Orange, Tatnall, West and Madison streets, as well as a partial connection at

Shipley Street

. 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.

Development

“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 University of Delaware and released in June indicates that Riverfront development has generated about $67 million in revenue for the city, county and state since 1996. The city’s return on investment has been steadily increasing to an estimated 35 percent a year, or $5.9 million in revenue for 2006. There’s been a dramatic shift in who is doing the funding, too. In fiscal 1996, 100 percent of the investment was from public funds. By fiscal 2007, 91 percent came from private sources. And it seems more is coming. The RDC is currently working to attract a first-ra