An ambitious plan to reimagine a century old community on Wilmington’s West Side is making strides.
Work on the neighborhood known as The Flats started in 2015 and is expected to be completed in six phases that stretch over 10-15 years.
Right now, it’s about a third of the way complete and this week contributor Larry Nagengast takes a look what’s been done so far, what’s still to come and how it’s unique approach is faring.
On Wilmington’s West Side, a century-old community built for blue-collar workers is getting a new lease on life – literally.
Reconstruction of The Flats, a neighborhood of some 430 homes straddling Bancroft Parkway between Fourth and 10th streets, is about one-third complete. The rebuilt community will have 450 housing units, 284 in three-story apartment buildings and the remainder in row homes with private entrances.
The project’s first two phases – 144 units overall – have been completed. For the past month, heavy-duty excavators, with powerful teeth protruding from their massive buckets, have been chewing away at the brick walls of the rowhouses on the west side of the parkway between Sixth and Seventh streets, paving the way for a round of construction that should continue through the end of next year.
Most likely, the $110 million six-phase reconstruction project will continue through the late 2026, says Rodney Lambert, president and CEO of the Woodlawn Trustees, the nonprofit real estate development firm that owns the property.
Residents of the new units – most of whom were relocated to other parts of the community during the first construction phases – are pleased with the change.
They’ve traded uninsulated, energy-eating homes with tiny closets and 42-inch bathtubs for air-conditioned residences with roomy closets, multiple baths, dishwashers and microwaves, not to mention free WiFi connections, outdoor security cameras and off-street parking.
“I’m basically in the same spot” as before, in the 500 block of North Union Street, says Annette Brister, a retired cook who has lived in the neighborhood since 1991. “Now I’ve got a bigger bathroom and the main thing is I don’t have that high, high electric heating bill.”
With the electric baseboard heating in the old unit, her utility bills were running $200 to $250 month, Brister says. The new units have electric heat pumps, and Brister says she’s now paying about one-third of what she used to.
Christine Lolley, who lives in the 600 block of North Union Street, admits she misses the tiny front and back yards she had when she lived on Grant Avenue, but the central air, hardwood floors, dishwasher and the washer and dryer in her new home more than make up for that. “I think they’ve really done a nice job,” she says.
Mostly built between 1902 and 1913, The Flats were the vision of William Poole Bancroft, the Quaker cotton-mill owner and philanthropist for whom the parkway that serves as the neighborhood’s spine was named. He worked with landscape architects to create his vision, “a subdivision of property as will be economically valuable, designed to meet the demands of all grades of wealth, including that of the day laborer.”
Bancroft was also responsible for assembling much of Wilmington’s parkland, including Rockford Park at the northern end of the parkway, as well as huge tracts north of the city along the Brandywine. A substantial portion of that suburban acreage became part of the First State National Historical Park.
Bancroft, according to Lambert, started working part-time in his family’s Bancroft Mills when he was 7, advanced to full-time status at 14 and became a partner in the business when he was 30. Even in the late 19th century, most of the new housing built in Wilmington was meant to be owner-occupied, and Bancroft recognized a need for rental housing “for people of modest means – millworkers, artisans and other hard-working, working-class people,” Lambert says.
Bancroft was 66 when construction began, with the work funded by the wealth he had built while running the mills.
While Bancroft’s business legacy may be long gone – production at the mills ceased in 1961 – his initiative to provide housing for the working class has endured.
“Our population really hasn’t changed a lot over the years,” Lambert says. “It’s mostly people in the service industries, bank tellers, hospital workers, an array of different walks of life, and from people just starting out up to retirees.”
Funding for the reconstruction has come from a variety of sources, including state and foundation grants, about 60 percent of the total is in the form of federal low-income housing tax credits. Because of the reliance on these tax credits, applicants for units in The Flats must meet federal income guidelines. Their income must fall between 30 and 60 percent of the average median income for New Castle County ($87,400 for a four-person household as of April 2018, the most recent update). Depending on income, monthly rentals range from $570 to $915 for a two-bedroom apartment and from $640 to $1,025 for a three-bedroom unit, according to Dana Fryberger, district manager for Housing Development Corporation MidAtlantic, which is developing and managing the properties for Woodlawn.
“When you think about rental prices here in the city, you really can’t find anything comparable,” Lambert says. A recent check of properties listed for the nearby Trolley Square area on the Trulia.com real estate website found monthly apartment rentals ranging from $750 to more than $2,000.
And, he adds, when people unfamiliar with the community pass by, most believe that the housing is priced at market rates, not subsidized because of the low-income tax credits used to help finance construction, Lambert says.
That helps explain why applicants can remain on a waiting list for three to five years, says Donna Gooden, Woodlawn executive assistant.
Also complicating the process, Fryberger says, is that the tax-credit rules require developers to set aside specific percentages of each size unit for applicants who fall within a particular income range. For example, if a vacant unit is designated for occupancy by a household whose income is 40 percent of the county median, it cannot be rented to someone whose income is at the 60 percent level.
“The tax credit rules can be confusing and hard to understand,” she says.
As part of the reconstruction plan, residents of The Flats were relocated into vacant units in the neighborhood and given priority for moving into the new units. Most have done so, but some have moved elsewhere and a few found that their income now exceeded the federal guidelines, Gooden says.
Before deciding on reconstruction, Woodlawn considered rehabbing the entire community but decided against it for a variety of reasons. “Rehabbing would have cost us more. Expanding the size of the units would have cost us density. And the things the residents wanted – like community rooms and off-street parking – wouldn’t have been possible in a rehab,” Lambert says.
Even so, as a nod to the community’s history, Woodlawn has decided it will preserve the original rowhomes on the west side of the 700 block of Bancroft Parkway, Lambert says. The 18 to 20 units on the block were built in the 1930s, well after the rest of the neighborhood, and they are “in pretty good shape,” he says. After the rest of the neighborhood is rebuilt, these units will receive extensive interior renovations, but that work is probably five or six years down the road.
Even in their new homes, residents say The Flats has maintained much of its distinctive character.
“It’s quiet and peaceful, a place where you can safely take your kids outside. There’s no stress, no one loitering,” says Lolley, who moved into the neighborhood in 2004 and has four children ranging from 11 months to 15 years old. From her old home on Grant Avenue, she could watch as the Woodlawn Library, a prime attraction of the community, was built practically across the street. Her new apartment is just two blocks south of one of the residents’ favored shopping destinations, the Dollar Tree store on Union Street.
“Almost everything is in walking distance – a lot of new stores, and all the restaurants along Union Street,” she says.
If a destination is beyond walking distance, there’s a bus shelter on Ninth Street, just west of Union, made from bricks that match the ones used for the residential units. And the shelter is topped with triangular signage reminding passengers that they’re in The Flats.
The bus shelter isn’t the only example of distinctive detail in the rebuilding community. Bricks laid in a herringbone pattern enhance the appearance of the upper level of the rowhomes in the 800 block of Grant Avenue.
“There was an emotional attachment to the old units but it got to the point where we couldn’t keep them any longer,” Lambert says.
But he’s more than pleased with what has replaced them. Tenants regularly invite him into their new homes.
“They’re beaming with pride. They show us how they’ve decorated. They feel like they just hit the lottery,” he says. “We get hugs and they cry. That’s the most wonderful part of my job.”