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Wilmington Riverfront redevelopment close to critical mass

Anne Hoffman/Delaware Public Media

It’s a sparkling Saturday afternoon in spring and Donna Moller and her 4-year-old nephew are headed to Stratosphere, the indoor trampoline park on the Wilmington Riverfront.

This is the fourth time this week the New Castle woman has visited the district, which is reaching critical mass in fulfilling its vision as a place where people live, work and play.

“I work in downtown Wilmington and I walk down to the restaurants for lunch all the time,” she says. “On nice days, I take a walk and enjoy looking at the water.”

Once an industrial wasteland, the broad swaths that border the Christina River now hum with restaurants and recreational attractions. Historic warehouses have been transformed into workplaces for major employers, including AAA Mid-Atlantic, Barclay’s and Capital One.

So what turned the tide?

“When we think about it, if we had to point to one thing, it was the movie theater,” says Megan McGlinchey, director of operations at the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC). “It’s brought people down to the Riverfront who haven’t been here before.”

With prominent signage visible from Interstate-95, the multi-screen Penn Cinema Riverfront and IMAX theater draw audiences from northern Delaware, Maryland and southern New Jersey. The next closest IMAX screen is in King of Prussia, Pa.

Moller is a regular at the movies. In addition to attending with friends, she takes nieces and nephews to films at the Riverfront. She treated her nephew, Ossagur Shields, to the latest Mutant Ninja turtles flick.

“This is where I take the kids for one-on-one time,” she says. “At the Riverfront, we can see a movie, get something to eat and engage in some sort of recreation.”

The list of choices for activities is expanding. On May 16, the Riverfront adds a mini golf course to its slate of attractions. Recreational draws already include the trampoline park, the Delaware Children’s Museum, and the Horizon Services Waterfront Rink, an outdoor venue that can accommodate up to 350 ice skaters.

On the cultural front, the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts, OperaDelaware and the Delaware Theater Company are all sited in the district. The Amtrak station provides easy access to artists and performers from New York.

A rising tide on the Riverfront lifts all boats throughout the city, says Sarah Willoughby, executive director of the Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau. The addition of the Westin, a 180-room hotel that directly adjoins the 92,000-square-foot Chase Center on the Riverfront, is bolstering the city as a destination for conferences, seminars and conventions.

“We have seen an increased interest in larger groups using the Westin and additional downtown Wilmington hotels,” she says, noting that the CVB is targeting citywide business with a transportation incentive for groups who book 500 or more room nights.

More people are living on the Riverfront, in a mix of townhouses and condominiums, as well as apartments.

The latest addition in housing is the Residences at Harlan Flats, one-and two-bedroom luxury rental apartments that target young single professionals with such amenities as valet trash pickup. Rents range from $1,465 a month for a 674-square-foot flat to $2,110 for a 1,103-square-foot unit with two bedrooms and two baths.

In the early 2000s, the Shipyard Shops, an outlet shopping center, provided a retail base with such stores as L.L. Bean and Nautica. But the concept flopped.

Most of that space has been converted to offices, which now boast a 95-percent occupancy rate. More than 500 people are employed there, working at Amtrak, the Planet Fitness gym, and other businesses. The St. Francis LIFE Center is a one-stop location where doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals treat and monitor senior citizens.

The current mix of riverfront retail is limited, with a wine shop and a beauty salon. A full-service drug store is on the RDC’s wish list of tenants. On the opposite side of the river, there’s a ShopRite supermarket and a strip shopping center that includes a furniture store, phone store and other providers.

RDC recently bought back the Riverfront Market from the Delaware River and Bay Authority. RDC plans to refresh the Euro-style venue, which currently offers produce vendors, bakers and makers of prepared foods, and promote it as a breakfast destination.  

“The parking is great and we think it will attract the young professionals in nearby rental properties,” McGlinchey says. “It’s an important project for us, a real gem that we think will be a unique draw.”

On the Christina, a water taxi transport visitors to various destinations. The steam-boat style Riverboat Queen, docked behind Iron Hill Brewery, offers crab cruises throughout the summer. The Kalmar Nyckel, a full-size replica of a 17th century Swedish vessel, is moored at Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park in the warmer months. The Wilmington Rowing Club and the Wilmington Youth Rowing Association both offer programs for beginners and more advanced athletes.

Reclaimed wetlands are now a habitat for birds and other indigenous species at the Russell W. Peterson Wildlife Refuge and DuPont Environmental Education Center.

The Blue Rocks, a Single-A baseball team, are riverfront pioneers, playing at Judy Johnson Field at Frawley Stadium since 1993, two years before the RDC was formed.

Joe Valenti, team spokesman, says attendance at games has been rising as more attractions open on the Riverfront.

“It’s great for the Blue Rocks, more reason to come down here, more restaurants, more people living here,” he says.

The team’s geographic reach is expanding, too.

“Northern New Castle County is still our biggest single drawing area, but we are seeing more people from Chester County and Delaware County in Pennsylvania, as well as Middletown,” he says. “With ticket prices from $4-$11, the lion’s share of our demographic is young families with children.”

The Blue Rocks have partnered with other Riverfront venues, including Stratosphere and CrossFit gym, where the team’s strength coaches work out. In addition to fireworks every Friday night, entertainment on Saturdays has been expanded.

By far, the most popular act is Cowboy Monkey Rodeo, in which capuchin monkeys ride border collies and herd rams on the ball field.

“This year we are having them for three dates,” Valenti says.

He has been working with the team since 2006, and has seen the landscape change firsthand, as restaurants open and high-rise residences go up.

“The change has been remarkable,” he says. “The Riverfront is a much more desirable place to be—and that helps all of us.”

Eileen Smith Dallabrida has written for Delaware Public Media since 2010. She's also written for USA Today, National Geographic Traveler, the Christian Science Monitor and many other news outlets.