Flooding and economic development at odds on 7th Street Peninsula
Regional planners hope to solve flooding problems on Wilmington’s E. 7th Street Peninsula, where sea level rise could eventually make the flooding worse. Many business owners there don’t want to move, and some want to see more development.
Most land on the 7th Street Peninsula is surrounded by water— the Christina River on one side and the Brandywine River on the other. With vacant commercial land, riverfront views and two small parks, some see it as a location like no other.
Marian Young is president of Brightfields, a brownfield consulting and remediation company located on the peninsula. “We love where we are,” she said. “We’re in the city, and yet we’re in the country.”
But Young says about once a year, her employees can’t get to work, because the one road onto the peninsula is flooded out.
“It’s deep all the way to Industrial St., which is our street, and that whole little area where the streets come together. And you have to take a boat— now you’re in a canoe, imagine yourself— and then as you go up Industrial St., maybe a fourth of the way, then you’ll hit dry land again,” she said.
If Young can predict the flood a day in advance, she tells her employees to take work home with them. But she says the flooding impacts her company’s productivity.
“I thought of buying a Duck,” she said. “Like those amphibious vehicles that they take people on tours in.” She says she has also considered a covered boat or a truck with a snorkel on it.
Young is not considering moving her business. She says the building is customized for them.“We have garden beds here that we grow our food in, we have composting,” she said. “We don't have any parking to pay.”
And Young is not concerned about flooding getting worse as a result of sea level rise. She notes that her property does not flood, largely because her company chose to raise the ground up several feet— above the elevation of the Wilmington Riverfront along the Christina River.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a high sea level rise scenario could leave about a quarter of the peninsula underwater by 2040, and roughly half of it underwater by 2060.
Dave Gula is a planner at the Wilmington Area Planning Council (WILMAPCO). As part of the 7th Street Peninsula Master Plan on which WILMAPCO, the City of Wilmington and DelDOT are partnering, Gula is looking into how businesses may cope with flooding in the future.
He says some areas of the peninsula — like the edges and the thinnest part in the middle— may be hard to protect.
“Even if we do our best, 20 years from now, it might not be sustainable because if sea levels are rising, and we’re getting more intense storms, there are areas that are just— sometimes they are better left to return to nature,” he said.
But Gula notes determining which properties are sustainable involves talking to businesses. “We don’t want to send anybody out of here because our study says you shouldn't be here,” said Gula. “We don’t want to affect the viable businesses right now, but we do at some point want to help them decide if they’re going to go or going to stay.”
One option for flood mitigation is an armored shoreline, but Gula says it could be cost-prohibitive. Another option could be a buffer of undeveloped land around the edges of the peninsula, with a trail.
“And if we can connect it to existing trail networks, that could be a really great network for recreation and fitness, for folks who live on [Wilmington's] East Side who don’t have as much access,” said Gula.
Dealing with flooding is not the only goal of the study. It seeks to improve general accessibility to the peninsula and is exploring a possible access point to the peninsula across the Brandywine Creek.
“We’ve got a lot of cultural amenities,” said Gula. “And we want to get people here and make it easier for them to come and visit, so that it’s not a daunting task — oh, I’d love to go to the Kalmar Nyckel, but it’s so hard to get there. I mean, that's a bad thing.”
And several businesses on the peninsula would like to see more development.
“I would see a more artsy type industry along with a restaurant element ... it just feels right,” said Scott Humphrey, president of Light Action Productions, which recently announced it is building a soundstage on the 7th Street Peninsula. Humphrey says the company will employ 50 to 60 people on the peninsula, plus contract workers. “There’s going to be this energy out there that isn’t there right now,” he said.
"We can't have a situation where our employees or our customers can't get to our facilities, period ... We can't have even one day of that." - Scott Humphrey, Light Action Productions
Humphrey says the peninsula offers his company a unique amount of space. “There’s twenty acres of land that we bought out there and we are only developing nine of the twenty," he said. "So as time goes on we can expand within that same area which we wouldn’t have that opportunity anywhere else."
Brightfields' Young says her company remediated and raised the elevation of the Light Action property before it was sold. Humphrey says for him, raising the roads is also a must.
“Other than natural disaster we can't have a situation where our employees or our customers can't get to our facilities, period,” he said. “We can't have even one day of that.”
Kathy Parcells is the executive director of the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation, which maintains a tall ship and education center near the isthmus of the peninsula.
Parcells says the Foundation hasn’t had any flooding problems since the new building opened in 2015. The property was raised about 10 feet above the previous building, which had flooded.
“When we were building this new building we actually considered whether it would make sense to build somewhere else,” she said. “And the fact is we have a fantastic dock, we have enough space to really handle all our needs. And the big bonus is we are located sort of yards away from the original landing site of the Kalmar Nyckel in 1638.”
At a public input session for the Master Plan last month, self-described bike advocate Gail Robillard spoke in favor of more bike trails on the peninsula that connect to other trail networks. “I want to make walking and riding feasible for everybody.”
Kalmar Nyckel volunteer Charles Hayward recalled the restaurant Up The Creek that once operated at the end of the peninsula. “Some more places like that right on the water— certainly it draws, as you’ve seen from the Wilmington Riverfront and all of that. So to be an extension of that,” he said.
Gula of WILMAPCO hopes to finish the study in April or May.
But Brightfields’ Marian Young says there are factors beyond flooding and mitigation she’ll consider as she plans her business’ future.
“They’re saying the sea level rise is going to be on a like thrity or fifty year horizon," said Young. "But then lately it’s been happening faster than we thought. … But that’s still a really long time. Typically a commercial building is like a thirty year life. So eventually we’ll grow out of it or it’ll be needing to be rehabbed. So we’ll probably move for that reason before we move for water.”