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Solomon's Court is latest piece to changing landscape on Wilmington's West Side

Larry Nagengast
Delaware Public Media

An effort to bring affordable housing for people with disabilities to Wilmington’s West Side – along with some new businesses – is moving forward.

Contributor Larry Nagengast tells us more about the project and the push to complete the vision of a local pastor who set it in motion.

Pastor Lottie Lee-Davis had a dream, but she didn’t live to see it come through.

Now her brother, Wayne DeShields, is at the helm, trying to guide her legacy project into reality.

The project, called Solomon’s Court, on the southwest corner of Fourth and Rodney streets on Wilmington’s West Side, would bring new businesses and affordable apartment living for adults with disabilities to an artery lined with aging homes, corner stores and small ethnic eateries, many catering to the area’s Latinx population.

“We’ve always described it as a catalytic economic development project. It’s huge, a big deal, and it has taken on a life of its own,” says Sarah Lester, president and CEO of the Cornerstone West Community Development Corporation and a key leader in the 8-year-old West Side Grows Together community revitalization program, which has a hand in several redevelopment projects either planned or already underway.

Credit Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Solomon’s Court will be built on this site on the southwest corner of Fourth and Rodney streets on Wilmington's West Side

Lottie Lee-Davis, who died in an automobile accident in September, developed her vision for Solomon’s Court while standing across the street, at the Be Ready Jesus Is Coming Church, where she had been pastor for about 15 years, and through her work as a housing development coordinator for the state Division of Aging and Adults with Physical Disabilities.

Solomon’s Court will be built in two phases, with the first phase starting by the end of the year and the second in late 2021 or early 2022, DeShields says. The first phase will include 4,600 square feet of ground-floor commercial space and six affordable rental units upstairs. Through a partnership with United Cerebral Palsy, those units will be rented to adults with disabilities, he says.

Another 12 rental units are planned for the project’s second phase.

Transforming the community

DeShields says he is looking for “tenants who will have an impact in the community” for the commercial space. Desirable businesses would include a daycare center and doctors’ and dentists’ offices, he says.

The budget for the entire project is about $6 million, DeShields says, with funding being provided through several banks, state agencies, the Longwood Foundation and other donors.

"We've always described it as a catalytic economic development project. It's huge, a big deal, and it has taken on a life of its own." - Sarah Lester, president/CEO Cornerstone West Community Development Corporation

“Pastor Lottie had been working to transform that corner for a decade. She lined up the resources,” Lester says.

The first step in that transformation occurred nearly four years ago, with the rejuvenation of a mini-park on the southeast corner of Fourth and Rodney. The rundown park there had become a hangout for prostitutes and drug dealers, but it found new life through a collaboration involving West Side Grows Together, the church-affiliated Be Ready Community Development Corporation and the city of Wilmington, with help from the area’s state legislators and the Longwood Foundation.

With the new playground equipment, the area quickly became a popular community gathering place and Lee-Davis, in an interview early last year, told of her commitment to keep it a safe haven. “One day, I was in the park, and two adults were smoking marijuana. I couldn’t just let them do it. I told them we wanted the park to be a safe place for kids, if you want to smoke weed, please do it someplace else. They just got up and left,” she said.

Credit Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
A new mural of the late Pastor Lottie Lee-Davis is unveiled this week at 4th & Rodney Park opposite the Be Ready Church

In the past month, the park was given a new feature. On the wall of the building on the park’s east side, artists JaQuanne LeRoy Daniels and Crae Washington are completing a mural that features an image of Lee-Davis looking out at the play area.

As the park was being improved, Lee-Davis grew concerned with the seven dilapidated buildings across the way. The buildings were condemned, and the Be Ready CDC acquired the property, setting the redevelopment in motion. “It’s going to be something nice in the middle of turmoil, the first new development in the area in 20 years,” she said last year.

“God gave her a vision of what to do,” DeShields said of his sister. “She wanted to have an impact on the community.”

“It’s about hope,” Lester says. “People see a vacant lot for years and they never think anything will ever come of it.”

Lester sees Solomon’s Court as an anchor at the center of the stretch of Fourth Street between Interstate 95 and Union Street, creating another landmark between the Latin American Community Center near I-95 and the West Side Health Center at Fourth and Scott streets. She’s also interested in the project for another reason: she thinks it would be a good site for a Cornerstone West CDC office, which now is located at 710 N. Lincoln St., in the home of its parent organization, West End Neighborhood House.

A promising project

As Solomon’s Court nears its construction start, another project on the West Side has just begun, with the goal of providing housing for a small and often overlooked demographic: young men and women aging out of the state’s foster care system.

The $2 million project, called Life Lines III, includes a pair of new townhouses at the corner of Seventh and Douglas Street, tucked between two landmarks, St. Francis Hospital and St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, plus the rehabilitation of two houses on Eighth Street and five on DuPont Street and transformation of the former Green Gate Pub, in the 1700 block of West Eighth Street, into a drop-in resource center and office for the program.

Credit Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Construction on Life Lines III is already underway on Wilmington's West Side

The new one-bedroom townhouse will meet ADA standards, making it suitable for someone who is not ambulatory or hard of hearing, and the three-bedroom unit is expected to accommodate members of the LGBTQ community, says Stacy Shamburger, Life Lines director.

The old pub will have a coffee-bar feel on the ground floor, and a conference room to use for meetings and training sessions. “We don’t want it to feel like a shelter,” Shamburger says.

The new construction and rehab, costing $2 million overall, will give Life Lines 10 more beds, bringing its capacity to 33, Shamburger says.  The work is expected to be completed in about nine months.

Credit Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
The former Green Gate Pub is slated to become a drop-in resource center and office for the LIfe Lines III program.

Since its creation 20 years ago, Life Lines has served more than 700 young men and women, providing not only housing but also counseling, education and work-readiness services like resume and interview preparation, and even providing clothing suitable for wearing to job interviews.

The state’s foster care program serves clients until they turn 18, but they are often not ready to live independently at that age, Shamburger says. Many participants in Life Lines stay until they are 21, and a few until they are 23, and there’s some in-and-out movement as well. “When you’re 18 or 19 and go out on your own, sometimes you’re not as ready as you think you are,” she says.

Also in the works

Two organizations with rich histories also have projects that make up significant pieces of the West Side’s ongoing revitalization.

The Latin American Community Center, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, is now working on raising the $3 million it needs to start construction of a $7.8 million childcare center at the corner of Fourth and Van Buren streets. The 2½-story center would increase the LACC’s childcare capacity from 136 children to 214. An outdoor playground is also part of the plan. The goal is to begin construction late next year with completion in 2023.

On the West Side’s far west side, the Woodlawn Trustees have passed the midway point of their project to rebuild The Flats, the century-old blue-collar community created by Quaker philanthropist and mill owner William Poole Bancroft. As of last month, 221 of the planned 450 rental units have been rebuilt in the area centered on Bancroft Parkway between Fourth and 10th streets.

The 77 units in the project’s third phase should be rented by the end of the year and construction of 52 units in the fourth phase should begin in the spring, Woodlawn vice president Donna Gooden says. When the reconstruction is complete, most likely in 2026, the rebuilt community will have 284 apartment units in three-story buildings and 166 rowhomes with private entrances.

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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