Raye Jones Avery

From the blog

Group wants Wilmington creative district

The Wilmington Renaissance Corp. believes developing a new creative district could breathe new life into the city. The $50 million concept will be revealed on Tuesday

A $50 million public-private partnership would seed a creative district in the historic Quaker Hill neighborhood of Wilmington, if a proposal by a downtown revitalization organization is adopted.

The plan includes building affordable live-work housing for creative professionals, improving street lighting and public gathering spaces and organizing round-the-clock arts programming. Artists would have access to housing at below-market rates and possible temporary waivers on state income taxes and water and sewer bills to help the program succeed, proponents envision.

The Wilmington Renaissance Corp., a nonprofit group composed of corporate and civic leaders, will formally unveil its proposal for the 25-block area bounded by Fourth, Ninth, Market and Washington streets at its annual meeting Tuesday at the Queen. That meeting will feature a keynote speech by Jamie Bennett, executive director of ArtPlace America, a collaboration of foundations, government and financial institutions that has invested $42 million in arts revitalization efforts nationwide.

Overall, the plan aims to increase the city’s tax base, foster a built-in audience for more than 50 cultural institutions in the wider area, reduce crime and create jobs. It seeks to stabilize the city core while filling the gap between Christina Riverfront redevelopment, new residences, shops and restaurants along lower North Market Street.

The downtown corridor has experienced spurts of revitalization over three decades. But proponents believe the new plan will leverage those public and private investments and recent expansion efforts by Wilmington Hospital and the Delaware College of Art and Design.

The concept has received early support from Gov. Jack Markell and Wilmington Mayor Dennis P. Williams, according to Carrie Gray, WRC managing director.

“The mayor strongly believes Wilmington must attract imaginative people from all walks of life who are committed to making our city a destination – a city where exploration of new ideas and growth of inventive commerce flourishes,” said Alexandra Coppadge, the mayor’s spokeswoman.

The vision “does not have to be limited to Wilmington’s downtown or only one neighborhood,” Coppadge said in a statement. “This initiative demonstrates the power of grass roots planning. From Union Street, to Church Street, from Vandever Avenue to Southbridge, communities are working to instill new life into their neighborhoods.”

It is unclear how the latest plan, developed over the last three years, will be funded. Gray said she hoped the private sector would pick up three-quarters of the cost but couldn’t be more specific. She admitted that number may be unrealistic.

“Government will not be the biggest investor in this effort,” she said. City leaders will be among the first approached to help change zoning in the largely residential area to accommodate light industrial uses.

Preliminary planning, estimated at $60,000, was funded by JPMorgan Chase and United Way of Delaware. Renaissance applied to ArtPlace for a grant this year to partly fund the creative district, Gray said, but was denied. It was one of 1,300 competing proposals.

Markell’s proposed state budget, which still needs to be approved by the General Assembly, earmarks $7 million in grants to downtown development districts across Delaware. Gray said she hoped the creative district could access a portion of those funds.

The 92-page plan calls for as many as 50 new townhomes, apartments and creative work spaces, galleries and small performance venues built on mostly vacant land concentrated near West Street over the next five years at an estimated cost of $30 million to $40 million.

Similar to the 23-unit Shipley Lofts on Shipley Street, which is fully occupied, the new development would prioritize selling and leasing space to working creative professionals. Artists would be encouraged to rent or buy at 10 to 20 percent below market rates.

Other communities have successfully recruited creative professionals to derelict neighborhoods through incentives. Among WRC’s models is Paducah, Kentucky, which aggressively courted artists through financing packages.

The idea of relying on skilled, educated and hip creative professionals to generate urban revival was first promulgated more than a decade ago by consultant Richard Florida. Last year, however, Florida conceded that clustering creative professionals in urban communities provides “little in the way of trickle-down benefits.”

But Gray and other Renaissance Corp. leaders remain confident the resettlement of creative professionals would expand training and other social programs available to the larger community.

The group’s plan proposes forgivable loans for building renovations, property tax abatements, water and sewer fee waivers and income tax waivers on creative work produced within the district for a period of time.

Today, Quaker Hill, west of the downtown business center, is largely an African-American community of renters.

The creative district is not a gentrification strategy, says Gray, explaining that development will mainly concentrate on vacant properties and land. One-quarter of the 388 buildings in the district are vacant, which is double the city’s vacancy rate.

There is nothing to prevent landlords from renovating their properties and displacing current residents to take advantage of the incentives, Gray said. But uprooting a large number of renters is unlikely. The president of the Quaker Hill Neighborhood Association serves on the plan’s steering committee.

To qualify for incentives, “artist” is defined broadly, including painters, musicians, writers, brewers, comedians, bloggers, welders and research and development consultants – “essentially anyone whose profession harnesses their creative capacity to innovate and create,” according to the plan.

By making housing and studio space affordable, Wilmington could attract creative individuals struggling in Philadelphia or Baltimore, organizers said, and at the same time bring in new audiences from those areas.

One-third of the faculty at the Christina Cultural Arts Center lives in surrounding cities, said executive director Raye Jones Avery, who also serves on the creative district steering committee. When the community school hosted jazz fusion band Snarky Puppy earlier this year, more than two-thirds of the audience came from outside Wilmington, she said.

“People who have an appetite for cultural programming will travel for an hour,” she said.

Other aspects of the proposal call for more than $2 million in Shipley Street improvements, including additional lighting and outdoor seating; more than $2 million for a 20,000-square-foot shared production studio for artists; and more than $1 million for a kitchen incubator for use by caterers and food manufacturing startups.

Low-cost programming items could include expanding the monthly downtown Art Loop and adopting a mural program. The entire plan could take two decades to implement, Gray said, and will evolve based on community priorities.

Within a year, organizers hope to have the necessary zoning approvals in place to construct as many as 10 new homes. Interfaith Community Housing of Delaware, a nonprofit affordable housing developer based in Dover, would spearhead the housing piece.

Chris Buccini, co-president of the Buccini/Pollin Group, serves on the Renaissance board. The real estate developer has been the single largest recipient of city development and redevelopment money since 2002 and is among the largest landowners on Market Street.

Beginning in 1999, Renaissance spearheaded a $150 million plan to revitalize the Ships Tavern area – from Martin Luther King Boulevard to Fourth Street and from Shipley to King streets. Similar to the creative district, the concept was to create a 24-hour vibrant urban neighborhood. The development stalled in 2004, and Renaissance suffered a financial crisis that required a $3 million public bailout in the form of a parking garage.

Renaissance’s new plan would include funding for additional staff to implement the creative district, according to the plan.

“There were a lot of lessons learned,” Gray said of the Ships Tavern strategy. “The vision we had for that neighborhood has absolutely happened.”

According to census data, the area around lower Market Street doubled its population to 1,385 from 2000 to 2010.

At the same time, crime in the area targeted for redevelopment is more than double that of the city as a whole. More residents are needed, Gray says, to serve as a deterrent.

Revitalization is “definitely a marathon,” she said, “not a sprint.”


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