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In the Neighborhood

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Rob Buccini (left) and Chris Buccini stand in the tower of their Christina Landing.
Photograph by Thom Thompson
www.thomthompson.com

Like new shoots and leaves on an age-old tree, signs of new life spring forth, changing the city’s skyline. Residential towers now reach for the sun along the banks of the Christina River, showing signs of rebirth for this city of deep roots. All the while, new leaves fill in spaces on the network of lower branches, happening in small ways, so quickly, and in so many places, that you turn to look in what feels like the blink of an eye to find the tree lush and green again, full of new life and promise for the coming season.

The completion of each new residential project in Wilmington brings a host of new city dwellers and rekindles the spirits of its current residents. New construction of luxury town homes and condos, the preservation of historic buildings for residential use and rehabilitation through new construction in struggling pockets of the city all evidence a commitment to Wilmington’s revitalization.

New Development

When Rob and Chris Buccini of Buccini/Pollin Group announced in 2002 their plans to purchase the Delaware Trust Company building at Ninth and Market streets, then convert it to a residential complex, Mayor James M. Baker saw the project as a “huge boost” to the city’s effort of “creating market rate housing” and “a vibrant 24-7 residential downtown Wilmington community.”

Buccini/Pollin Group and other developers have continued to build the portfolio of downtown and Riverfront residences, from new construction to restoration of historic buildings. Of BPG’s many development projects, Chris Buccini says, “I think the Residences at Rodney Square will have the greatest impact over the long term because it really brought residential housing to the epicenter of the city of Wilmington, which has acted as a springboard to other projects.”

Buccini/Pollin Group went on to develop Christina Landing on the south side of the river. Skeptics wondered who would buy, but the 63 town houses sold out in four weeks, and the 183 condominiums and 178 apartments are 80 percent and 90 percent leased, respectively. Building on that momentum, BPG is bringing an additional 700 residences to the Riverfront as part of Justison Landing, a $500 million mixed-use project scheduled for completion in the fall of 2008. New residents will enjoy the convenience of the new ShopRite in Justison Landing’s retail section—the first new grocery store in Wilmington in 10 years.

Joe DiPinto, director of the city’s economic development office, says he’s taking a “strong look at downtown” and working to “implement retail activity that adds to the flavor, fun and texture of living in an urban area.” By focusing on luring more retail of higher quality and providing residents “all of the amenities that make downtown living so enjoyable,” the city looks to increase its residential population in the downtown area by several thousand.

“Certain pioneers created a groundswell of followers” says DiPinto. Along Market Street you’ll find historic property restorations and renovations underway by Preservation Initiatives, bringing more mixed-use residential properties to the 300 and 400 blocks of Market Street. BPG will have residential units at 837 Market St. with six apartments above retail space at street level, and three lots at 421 Market St. will become 12 apartments also above first floor retail. BPG looks forward to bringing new dining and entertainment venues to town for these new urban dwellers.

RISE Helps Revitalize

While leading the way on downtown and Riverfront development, Rob Buccini of BPG, in his capacity as chairman of the Wilmington Housing Partnership, has also been involved in the revitalization of other neighborhoods of the city.

When Baker took office in 2001, he spoke about the instability of some of Wilmington’s neighborhoods and how new approaches needed to be developed. “City government cannot be everything to everybody,” he said. “We must reach out to our non-profit community, our education community, our arts community, our business community and our faith community. We’ve got to cooperate, build partnerships and work together to build a better tomorrow.”

Organizations and people like WHP’s Jerry Cain, Ministry of Caring’s John Teoli, Habitat for Humanity’s Kevin Smith, Interfaith Community Housing’s Gary Pollio, Cornerstone West’s Paul Calistro Jr. and many others have answered the mayor’s call. Working in partnership with the city, these leaders have been effecting change in neighborhoods to rid them of vacant housing and create a more positive reality of homeownership, community and strength.

The vacant housing fee has helped. “If you have a property that’s vacant more than a year, it will cost you $500, and $1,000 the second year, increasing incrementally to $5,000. It has helped us turn the vacancies back to occupied use,” says chief of staff Bill Montgomery.

Turning those vacancies to productive owner-occupied homes is where the Wilmington Housing Partnership comes in. This non-profit, created in 1989, has been working to increase housing stock and homeownership in the city. WHP facilitates funding and development of new homes in strategically selected areas, as part of its Residential Improvement and Stabilization Effort, called RISE, a five-year plan to reduce vacant housing and build new infill homes.

“When we go in and try to help a neighborhood, we do a block at a time,” says WHP executive director Jerry Cain. “When we make that kind of investment in a community, people care more about their properties. It drives the dealers away and brings income diversity into a neighborhood. As we solve the problem properties in the neighborhood, the people living there feel safe to make investments in their homes, and these sections tend to get better.”

WHP received a call about an old warehouse in Browntown going to sheriff’s sale, for example, “so we ran down, bought it and merged it with a gym that never got off the ground,” says Cain. “Now we will be building 40 to 50 single-family homes over three city blocks.”

Construction begins this fall. The builder that’s selected will sell at market cost and repay the initial investment to WHP. Homes will be priced at about $250,000, with a total project estimate of $11 million. All the properties will be put on the tax rolls, so revenue for the city will be generated during construction.

“One of the projects I’m really exciting about is Franklin Chase,” says Cain. “About a year or so ago, JP Morgan/Chase gave us $500,000, and we went down the block, buying every property that was available.” Nineteen new three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath homes with central air conditioning and garages will be built, with JP Morgan/Chase providing low-interest loans to make the homes more affordable.

These new homes, in the Hilltop Community, will be priced at about $170,000. And there have been many inquiries from interested home buyers. The project will transform an entire neighborhood block and the lives of the people who live there.

More recently, WHP has been involved in

Speakman Place

at 30th and North Spruce streets. The former site of the Speakman Company, a plumbing fittings manufacturer, is now a $14 million residential development project by Cornerstone West Community Development Corporation, in conjunction with Ingerman Group. A total of 71 town houses will be built to create a mixed-income community.

Greater Brandywine

Village Revitalization

The Wilmington Housing Partnership has worked with Brandywine Village over the years to help further its revitalization efforts. Of special note is a collaborative effort between WHP, Brandywine Village, the city of Wilmington, the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and the EPA that converted a brownfield site, the former Hi-Tech gas station, into the Brandywine Village Green. The gas station, which had been abandoned for five years, now serves as enjoyable green space for community residents.

Brandywine Village bears testimony to the power of a community when rallied around a shared vision: one of reclaiming and preserving their historic neighborhood for generations to come. Here a progressive group of residents and concerned citizens formed Greater Brandywine Village Revitalization Inc., a non-profit organization, to get this historic section of Wilmington (primarily the 18th-century stone mansions of the 1800 and 1900 blocks of

Mark

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