Artists, architects and entrepreneurs have always expressed the tenor of the times through their creations. Here in Wilmington, we see that happening as the creative class helps to elevate the city by restoring the buildings of our past, bringing new businesses and arts venues to our present, and leaving a cultural legacy for future generations.
Of course, all of this building and creating takes money, more than $1 billion of which has been invested recently by a handful of private developers such as Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, Buccini/Pollin Group, Preservation Initiatives, Pettinaro and the Commonwealth Group.
More important, however, preservation takes vision.
Wilmington is blessed with visionary leaders in its public offices, private businesses and non-profit sectors. All work together to make sure Wilmington stays fresh. For the city officials who have been working to save elements of Wilmington’s past for generations to come, help has arrived in the nick of time.
“Market Street’s historic district celebrates an architectural era of a time that has passed,” Patricia Maley says, “and we feared some of these buildings would end up under a wrecking ball.”
As a senior planner for the city, Maley saw the 300 and 400 blocks of Market Street sit vacant and decaying for a long time. “The buildings scared away people who didn’t have the willingness, financial means or ability to restore them properly. Historic restoration is probably the most demanding methodology out there.” The work requires people who are at the top of their ability to match the craftsmanship of an earlier time—in this case, that of the late-18th and early-19th centuries.
In addition, there are financial constraints. Though tax credits are available to make restoration projects more feasible, not everyone knows how to use them. That wasn’t the case with Preservation Initiatives.
The people at Preservation Initiatives are experts in historic restoration. They came to town in 2005 when principals Don McGinley and Chris Winburn moved their office from Philadelphia to lower Market to restore the historic buildings of the 300 and 400 blocks.
“Working with them has truly been a godsend,” says Maley. “They’re very innovative, as well as thorough with the necessary details, and make our jobs much easier. These people walked in, they knew the game, and they knew how to play it well. The fact that we had a set of buildings that they could play with made it a win-win situation.”
Page 2: The Lippincott
If not for the timely $18 million restoration, the buildings now known as The Lippincott—named for the Lippincott & Co. department store that occupied most of the 300 block from 1920 to the 1950s—may have fallen, Winburn says.
Sonny Waters, who represents the investors, described how rocking his weight from one leg to the other on an upper floor of one building, he could feel it begin to sway.
“It took $300,000 worth of concrete and a quarter of a million [dollars] in steel just to stabilize the buildings,” says Waters. “You can drive tractors inside those buildings now, and they won’t fall down.”
What really gets Waters jazzed though, is the new serpentine masonry, like that of the original Lippincott. In a serendipitous turn of events, Waters was introduced to the owner of a farm with a serpentine quarry near West Chester, Pennsylvania. Though the quarry had been defunct for nearly 70 years, Preservation Initiatives was able to secure some stone for The Lippincott restoration.
“The masons really enjoyed the challenge of being stone masons again, in the true sense of the word,” Waters says.
Serpentine stone is a unique shade of green—but it isn’t the only thing that’s green about the renovation. Historic preservation projects like these are environmentally friendly by nature; developers reuse, recycle and reinforce existing materials. At The Lippincott, more than 80 percent of the original structural material was reused.
In addition, all elevators and lighting in common areas will be solar-powered, and large windows may be opened for fresh air and sunshine, lessening dependence on heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.
All of the original stained glass has been restored by hand. Tin ceilings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries have been repaired and replaced in some buildings, and the facades are done in beautiful shades of purple and green.
Winburn says Preservation Initiatives is very conscious about its leasing strategy. It hopes to attract businesses through the block’s unique architecture and environment. They want to keep things local, forgoing any leases to national chains, and are looking at potential tenants of architects, law firms and small tech companies for the larger floor plans upstairs, and restaurants, as well as a wine bar and a pizza shop at street level.
Page 3: The Dry Goods
With The Lippincott restored, Preservation Initiatives has turned its attention to the buildings on the 400 block of Market Street, now known as The Dry Goods, named after the premier department store—Wilmington Dry Goods—that occupied the city block from 1920 to 1977.
“The name Wilmington Dry Goods holds some weight for people who have lived here and, symbolically, speaks to a return to grace and a viable, dynamic corridor,” says Winburn. “It’s great to hear stories from [Wilmington’s economic development director] Joe DiPinto and [City Councilwoman] Hanifa Shabazz about waiting on line for the latest records or fashions there.”
When completed in the summer of 2010, The Dry Goods will house retail establishments at street level and residential space upstairs. The proposed redesign includes elements of the Dry Goods’ original design.
Of The Dry Goods and The Lippincott, Winburn says, “These buildings are so architecturally attractive and locally relevant. They’re artifacts from Wilmington’s past. Philosophically, we think it’s important for Wilmington’s past to have a relationship with its present and its future.”
Page 4: LOMA
The sights and sounds of downtown revitalization are building like a crescendo, and some of the most notable changes are occurring in the area known as LOMA, the Lower Market Design District, from Second to Sixth Streets between Market and King—and beyond, from Martin Luther King Boulevard north to 10th Street.
As long-vacant buildings are restored and new restaurants and businesses spring up, owners of established, smaller businesses such as 100-year-old Gross Lighting, A.R. Morris Jewelers and Steve’s Meat Market have begun sprucing up their storefronts.
The LOMA concept evolved from conversations among more than 100 like-minded people at a forum in 2007 about what lower Market could become. The conclusion was to build on the common theme and successes of existing architectural and interior design companies, such as Delaware College of Art & Design and David Bromberg Fine Violins, then market the area to the “creative class.”
“When we first opened, I think the take on arts and culture was that it was sort of an amenity,” says Jim Lecky, former president of DCAD. “Now there’s more of a profound understanding that the arts are an economic engine that drives development.”
Today 45 more DCAD students are LOMA residents, thanks to the Buccini/Pollin Group’s renovation of The Saville and the new Tatiana Copeland Student Center.
The city has encouraged renovating upper floors of buildings, as BPG did, for commercial use. The Upstairs Fund provides gap financing to help to offset costs involved with making those spaces lease-able in such ways as updating sprinkler systems. “The city was very wise, and maybe even clairvoyant, given the economic situation, to initiate the Upstairs Fund to keep people moving in and working along Market Street,” Winburn says.
LOMA is now much more than a concept. With street signs hung to designate the district, a board of directors working to bring in new businesses and residents, and a new non-profit status that lets LOMA accept tax-deductible donations, the area is a work in progress—one that is becoming hip before our very eyes.
Several subcommittees are working to transform the area’s amenities to mesh with the lifestyles of those in—and moving to—the district. Its Community Outreach Group, for example, has initiated the LOMA Fresh Market on Third Street between Market and Shipley from spring to fall. Similar in style to a farmers market, the LOMA Fresh Market will focus on selling local, healthy and organic foods. Other subcommittees are working on public Wi-Fi, sustainability, street-level recycling, public spaces and LEED certifications for commercial interiors.
Page 5: LOMA, continues…
The Archer Group was the first business to move into LOMA and spark creation of the design district. Now it’s doubling down by expanding its office space in the 233 N. King St. building by 60 percent to accommodate its current and growing staff.
“What’s really exciting for us about our location is that there are a lot of good, unique restaurants opening up, which is great for business and bringing guests in from out of town,” says LOMA board member Lee Mikles, principal of the Archer Group. “The Rebel has amazing jerk chicken and mac ’n’ cheese, and when six of us went to Orillas (a tapas bar), we basically ordered half of the menu.”
“There’s a first mover’s advantage,” says Mikles. “By being the first coffee shop (Perky Bean), the first tapas joint (Orillas Tapas Bar & Restaurant) or the first dry cleaner (Greener Cleaner Plus), they become the leaders and others become followers. When they take the step to get in early, they have a lot of opportunity to really help shape LOMA. If people want to be involved, now is a great time to get in, because the clay hasn’t hardened yet and they can make their mark.”
LOMA board member Carrie Gray, managing director of Wilmington Renaissance Corporation, has been engaged in Wilmington’s transformation for more than a decade. When Wilmington Renaissance moved its office to Market Street 10 years ago, there were few options for coffee or lunch. “From my perspective, I see changes happening every day on Market Street,” she says, “and I hear people who haven’t been here for awhile say, ‘Wow. What a difference a few years can make.’”
“Wilmington really wants to do good work here, and it definitely shows,” says Winburn. He notes a “pretty remarkable level of camaraderie” between city officials, Downtown Visions, Main Street, a “very congenial group of developers” and a host of others. “We’re all pulling on the same end of the rope, working to create our vision of downtown together.”
Gray sees the 200 and 300 blocks of Market as “fully renovated, beautiful, glowing beacons of hope” and benchmarks of progress. “Twenty to 30 years from now, when there’s no question in anyone’s mind that LOMA is a happening place to be, the next generation will appreciate that we went to so much expense and effort to preserve these buildings, because they makes this a unique place and add to its character.”
Gray looks forward to seeing people walk their dogs or jogging on Market as indications of a lively neighborhood—everyday people doing everyday things in the place where they live every day.
Page 6: The Queen
New and existing LOMA residents will soon find additional entertainment at The Queen Theater at 500 N. Market. Built in 1915, The Queen was a spectacular showplace for entertainment on stage and screen, with seating for 2,000 people. It went dark in April 1959.
Through a unique public-private venture, Buccini/Pollin Group plans to save the theater. Demolition and construction is expected to begin this spring with a target opening of summer 2010. The Queen will bring quality entertainment to the area through the nationally recognized World Café Live, creating a synergy with other performance venues such as The Grand Opera House.
Buccini/Pollin has already raised two-thirds of the $24 million needed for the project. The remaining $6 million is the goal of the non-profit Light Up The Queen Foundation. Wilmington native Bill Taylor, whose fundraising work helped to save Tipitina’s in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, is leading the effort. A series of musical fundraisers has included concerts by Steve Forbert and Sharon Little, as well as a Mardi Gras party.
Lead designer for the project is Eddie Belk of Belk Architecture in Durham, North Carolina. Belk designed a previous project for World Café Live. Locally, he will be working with Homsey Architects.
“We wanted to partner him with someone who really knows Wilmington, Market Street and the building—which is Homsey,” says Jackie Ivy, vice president of Buccini/Pollin’s Market Street Initiative. “The Queen is such a linchpin for Market Street. This project will really galvanize the whole city’s revitalization. Now with World Café Live, we can really launch the belief that Market Street is coming back.
“People say they want to open a funky little business, but at this moment in the economy, people are a little nervous,” Ivy says. “They don’t want to be first, but they don’t want to miss out. I think the World Café Live really pushes them over the fence.”
Mikles sees the re-opening of The Queen with the World Café Live as the tipping point for the district.
“It will be a nationally recognized creative center here. All of the businesses that would naturally feed off of that, who are perfect for LOMA or World Café Live, will suddenly find it very credible for them to be there,” he says. “Before they were taking a chance by being here. Now, they’re taking a chance by not being here.”