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South Wilmington residents wonder what 'next frontier' of riverfront development will bring

News of a new riverfront apartment building planned for A St. in South Wilmington has sparked discussion among nearby Southbridge residents about what’s coming to the area— and what it means for them.

 

Delaware Public Media’s Sophia Schmidt explores how anticipated development of Wilmington’s “second riverfront” could impact residents of this historic neighborhood.

 

With the western Christina riverfront in Wilmington largely built out, planners, economic development officials and developers are turning their attention to the eastern riverfront in South Wilmington. 

News of a fully amenitized apartment building to be built on A St. has gotten Southbridge residents talking about how to harness the coming growth to benefit their largely low-income community. 

A bridge over the Christina River connecting the two riverfronts is expected to open in June, and a multi-million dollar wetlands park on the western edge of Southbridge meant to improve stormwater management and beautify the area is under construction.

The 76ers Fieldhouse recently built on South Market street is another massive investment in the area. 

“With the construction of the Christina River Bridge which will open hopefully in early 2020, we see now this side of the river — the east bank— [as] sort of the next frontier of riverfront development,” said Megan McGlinchey of the nonprofit Riverfront Development Corporation at the opening game at the fieldhouse last year. “So it’s definitely an area that we will be focused on for many years to come.”

Jeff Flynn, director of economic development for the City of Wilmington, says the City hopes to modernize the riverfront parcels on the eastern bank so that their uses generate commerce and city revenue, while creating opportunities for residents. 

“The area on the east bank of the Christina River, formerly industrial uses— our vision is to bring a road network and create new city blocks, very similar to what we’ve done on the west side of the river,” he said. 

One residential project is already planned for A St., which runs along the river, toward the residential neighborhood of Southbridge. 

The 150-unit apartment complex will be called River House. 

Dominic Wiker is vice president and director of development at Washington Place Equities — the Baltimore-based developer behind the project. He says the apartments will be market-rate and “fully amenitized.”

“Concierge, staffing, hotel-style lobby, fitness room, dog run, resident lounge on the lower level, rooftop deck on the top floor,” he said. “We think the great amenity of the building is going to be the proximity to the water.”

Wiker says the goal is to break ground on the project this spring and have the first residents living there by the middle of next year. 

The developers plan to take advantage of tax breaks associated with the federal Opportunity Zone that covers most of the city, but that status was not the primary draw.

“We were very encouraged by the City’s investments in the wetland park, I think the shopping center, the big athletics center and certainly the bridge,” said Wiker. “Altogether it really shows a lot of foresight and thinking. A vision that gets articulated by action, that’s a very attractive thing to want to be a part of.”

Marie Reed, president of the Southbridge Civic Association and a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, says she first learned of the project in news reports last month. 

“It would be nice if he came to the civic association to share his plans with us, I know he doesn’t have to. But as a good neighbor, it would be nice,”  she said. “Because we just want to know. You’re coming to our community.”

"I hope it turns out positive for the community, that they do not forget Southbridge." - Marie Reed

Wiker has expressed interest in meeting with Southbridge residents. 

Reed says she prefers residential development to industrial— which is planned on the other side of Southbridge. 

“I like the apartment complex better than the cement grinding— slag grinding— because there’s no environmental harms to the community,” she said.

Reed doesn’t want to see Southbridge left behind.

“I hope it turns out positive for the community, that they don’t forget Southbridge,” she said. “That we benefit from these things, benefit from the businesses, that they include us in the business somehow, as far as employment, or access to their buildings ... Where they’re going on A St. we’re getting a new road put in, so that does benefit everybody.”

Roxie Smiley-Carter moved to Southbridge several years ago. She echoes Reed’s hope for new development bringing employment. 

“I would hope that it would provide some jobs for residents who live here who need jobs,”  she said. 

City Council President and fourth-generation Southbridge resident Hanifa Shabazz says she wants development that will not continue to “hold down one part of the population” — but raise that population up.

At a Southbridge Civic Association meeting last month, Shabazz emphasized the importance of updating the 2006 Special Area Management Plan for the neighborhood — which was the genesis of the current wetlands park project. She notes the one section of the plan left unfinished would have addressed economic development. 

Shabazz says without a clear plan, gentrification is a possibility. 

“It’s always a risk of displacement if we’re not prepared,” she said. “That’s why [it’s] so important having a plan of action to address what this wave of development could do to a community such as ours, and make sure we put all the stop points in and supports in place so that displacement does not occur.”

Shabazz says nearby development could become problematic for existing Southbridge residents in the event of a reassessment of property values, which has not happened county-wide since the 1980s. 

“If assessment comes through Southbridge and they assess us along with the other properties around us, we will be taxed out of being able to cover the property taxes on our houses, because their value of their houses is so high, and our value of our houses is so low,” she said. 

Marie Reed says she’s already feeling pressure.

“I got a letter from a real estate company. It told me, ‘Thank you for expressing interest in selling your home’,” she said. “I didn’t express interest in selling my home.”

But Flynn says displacement through gentrification is far less of a concern in Wilmington than other cities. The city’s economic development director cites the fact that, in the absence of a new general reassessment, property tax assessments do not increase merely as a result of an increase in value at a neighboring property.

He says rent prices in Wilmington don’t spike the way they do in some other cities, and he cites the development of the west riverfront a decade ago. 

“I remember the concerns in the Browntown and the Hedgeville communities about rents increasing,” he said. “My observation is that did not occur. I don’t have the data in front of me, but my sense is that if we looked at the data in those two neighborhoods, you might see the rents increase like they did nationwide in the years between 2000 and 2007 or 2008. But then they dropped with the Great Recession … They’ve come up a little bit, but I don’t think they’ve actually surpassed the 2007 rates."

"We are just saying spread the love." - Hanifa Shabazz

Wiker—developer of the planned complex on A St.—does not see displacement of existing Southbridge residents as a result of new development in the near or intermediate term. He says the impact of nearby development should be positive. 

“In a perfect world, you’d think that you’d have younger people living on the river who then start to choose to move on in their life and invest in a for-sale or ownership situation— and like the neighborhood and want to stay in the neighborhood,” said Wiker. “We see that in other markets that we’re in.”

Shabazz emphasizes that she supports development. 

“We need the population, we need people with disposable income so that we can create businesses, so that we can create jobs and create wealth,” she said. 

But Shabazz maintains that Southbridge will need to be active in harnessing the energy around the eastern riverfront.

“We are a low-income community,” she said. “So for us to not think of how do we improve the economic status of our community, especially when you have a $35 million facility project coming up the street— how do we get the benefit of that redevelopment? The status of the community’s going to change with such a facility coming … We’re just saying spread the love.”

 

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