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Proposed Creative District in Wilmington starts to take shape

New housing, a “maker space” where innovators can design and refine their creations, art galleries and artists’ studios, improved streetscapes with a dash of mural art – could this be the start of something big?

That’s the hope of the Wilmington Renaissance Corporation and the numerous organizations and individuals who are supporting the framework for the city’s proposed Creative District – a revitalization plan for the area bordered by Shipley, Fourth, Washington and Ninth streets.

Almost one-third of the area within the proposed district is now taken up by vacant land, vacant buildings and surface parking lots, “contributing to a sense of general inactivity and lack of cohesion,” according to the Creative District planning document.

Wilmington Renaissance and its key partners – the Christina Cultural Arts Center, Interfaith Community Housing of Delaware, the Chris White Community Development Center and the Quaker Hill Neighborhood Association – began laying out the plan last year. More details were described Tuesday to an audience of about 175 people at Wilmington Renaissance’s annual meeting at World Café Live at The Queen.

Credit Photo by Alessandra Nicole
Governor Jack Markell addresses audience at WRC’s Annual Meeting

The initiatives included in the plan would stabilize a neighborhood in transition, provide housing for artists and craftspeople interested in settling and working in the city, and help create another potential destination to stimulate interest in downtown Wilmington.

“We’re widening the value of the very narrow Market Street corridor,” says Leonard Sophrin, the city’s planning director.

Strengthening the area will help tie together other popular venues in the city, including the Riverfront and Rodney Square, says Cassandra Marshall, president of the Quaker Hill Neighborhood Association. “You’ve got this one place in the middle that needs some stabilization in order to protect all those other investments,” she says.

There’s a reason for calling the targeted area a “creative district,” rather than an “arts district,” says Carrie Gray, Wilmington Renaissance managing director. It’s not just about artists and musicians, she says, “it’s also about designers, creators, manufacturers and producers.”

The strategy being used is called “creative placemaking,” an organized approach that leverages the power of the arts, culture and creativity to develop more cohesive neighborhoods that are attractive as places to live, work and visit, says Quaker Hill resident Raye Jones Avery, executive director of the Christina Cultural Arts Center.

There’s no timeline for getting it all done. Gray refers to the initiative as “a marathon, not a sprint.”

She and others point to the Riverfront as an example, noting that a redevelopment that began in the early 1990s continues to be a work in progress.

The first steps for the Creative District are about to be taken. Next month Interfaith Community Housing of Delaware will break ground on a $1.7 million project in Quaker Hill, transforming six vacant buildings into seven one-bedroom condominiums and three two- and three-bedroom homes. The homes, scheduled for completion next summer, will include studio space as well and will be offered first to artists, with financial incentives available to buyers who commit to living there for a minimum of 10 years.

Gary Pollio, Interfaith’s executive director, said pricing of the units – $60,000 or so for the condos and up to about $130,000 for the homes – will make monthly costs comparable to rental expenses for similarly sized units.

Meanwhile, the operators of Philadelphia’s NextFab “maker space” are scouting the creative district, looking for a suitable site to locate a satellite to its Philadelphia facilities, Gray says.

Gray describes a “maker space” as “a high school woodshop on steroids,” a place where artisans purchase a membership to gain access to large or expensive equipment that wouldn’t easily fit into their homes or would be too costly for them to buy so they could work on their projects. In Philadelphia, for fees starting at $49 a month, NextFab members can use  cutting-edge digital and traditional tools for wood, metal, plastics, textiles, graphics, electronics and software development.

Improving the streetscape on Shipley Street, long viewed as the service entrance to dozens of businesses fronting on Market Street, is a third key component of the plan. Shipley has been the beneficiary of two recent improvements – creation of the Shipley Lofts, which provides artists with living and studio space, and the opening of the Creative Vision Factory, a program that uses the visual arts as a tool in the rehabilitation of individuals with behavioral health disorders. The Buccini/Pollin Group, a leader in the revitalization of Wilmington’s downtown and Riverfront areas, will be giving Shipley another boost with construction of a 231-unit luxury apartment building on the site of a demolished parking garage fronting Ninth Street between Shipley and Orange streets.

Other likely components in the Shipley Street transformation include widened sidewalks, buried utility lines, art galleries, small shops, temporary art installations, and occasional events in open spaces.

Another piece of the project is the “Seventh Street Arts Bridge,” an eclectic mix of mural art, pocket parks, sculptures, decorative crosswalk treatments and creative lighting that could become an attractive pathway from Market Street to Madison Street in West Center City. Wilmington Renaissance is a finalist for a $250,000 grant from ArtPlace America that would be used to help finance the arts bridge. ArtPlace America has never awarded a grant to a Delaware organization; recipients will be announced next month.

The plan also calls for a “village of social practice” along Washington Street, on the district’s western edge, where social services agencies could cluster to offer skills training for employment and job re-entry. Plans are already being made for a “freedom mural” on the exterior walls of Marcella’s Place, a shelter for formerly homeless veterans operated by Connections CSP at the corner of Ninth and Washington streets.

Just as the Creative District plan has no specific timeline, it has no budget either. When asked, Gray offers an estimate of $50 million for completing everything that has been proposed, but notes that “you don’t know what a particular project is going to cost until you know all the details.”

The Longwood Foundation and two banks, JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America, have already made contributions to the planning process. Gray anticipates that funding will be arranged project by project, through the state’s new Downtown Development District program, the Delaware State Housing Authority’s Strong Neighborhoods Housing Fund, tax credits available for certain types of projects and traditional loans.

Wilmington Renaissance will assist interested developers in identifying the most promising funding sources, Gray says.

In addition, legislation introduced last month in the General Assembly with Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, and a group of Wilmington lawmakers as primary sponsors, would enable local government units to authorize creation of “land banks,” agencies that would be able to acquire blighted properties and hold them until a suitable developer is found.

Through a land bank, the city would be able to package parcels in a particular neighborhood to make possible coordinated development on a larger scale, Sophrin says.

The real work ahead, Quaker Hill leader Marshall says, lies in “doing enough development to attract artists, their galleries and the facilities they need.” If the effort succeeds in reaching “a tipping point, when it starts running itself … people will want to be there, and it will be fun to be there.”

Like the others involved in the project, Marshall says she doesn’t know how long that will take, “but it will definitely take a long time.”

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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