Delaware Public Media

Wilmington Riverfront still evolving after over 20 years

Apr 8, 2016

The stadium has new seats. Two new hotels are on the drawing boards, more apartments are on the way and a long-awaited bridge project will get started later this year, providing a much-needed link from the south and east to Wilmington’s Christina Riverfront.

Yes, two decades after the creation of the Riverfront Development Corporation and 23 years after the opening of Frawley Stadium, the riverfront remains a work in progress.

The fact that much remains to be done is hardly a cause for frustration; rather, it’s proof of the area’s resiliency in the face of setbacks and a source of optimism for continued growth.

“It’s pretty exciting,” says Jeff Flynn, Wilmington’s director of economic development.

The stadium upgrade – its most significant improvement in 15 years – features installation of about 5,000 new seats, including the replacement of aluminum benches in the reserved sections along the foul lines with individual seats. The aluminum seats remain in the general admission area.

Baseball fans got their first chance to enjoy the new seating Thursday, when the Wilmington Blue Rocks, the Carolina League affiliate of the world champion Kansas City Royals, opened their 2016 season.

"We feel this project has not only given Frawley Stadium a more modern look, but has also enhanced the comfort of our fans as they watch Blue Rocks baseball," general manager Chris Kemple said.

For the 2017 season, the Blue Rocks’ 25th at Frawley, the Blue Rocks hope to have a concourse built beyond the outfield fence, making it possible to fans to make a 360-degree circuit around the stadium while watching the game. The outfield concourse would have several “neighborhoods,” like play and games areas for children, Kemple said.

A combination of private and state funding, through the Delaware Stadium Corporation, would finance the project, he said.

While the Blue Rocks are hoping their improvements will put more fans in their seats, other projects in the works could give all visitors to the riverfront reasons to visit more frequently and perhaps stay a while longer.

In February, the Buccini/Pollin Group announced plans to build two new hotels – a 200-room Marriott and a 100-room Homewood Suites – but they have not said where on the Riverfront they will be built or when they might open. All the details haven’t been worked out yet. “We’re in a sensitive negotiating phase with our franchises,” said Sarah Lamb, Buccini/Pollin’s director of design and marketing.

“I don’t think you’ll see dirt moved this year,” said Mike Purzycki, executive director of the Riverfront Development Corporation and currently running for Wilmington mayor. Purzycki has been looking forward to additional hotel construction because increased capacity would make the Chase Center on the Riverfront a more attractive destination for larger conventions and meetings. Currently, the only hotel on the riverfront is the 180-room Westin, which adjoins the Chase Center and opened in 2014.

Any day now, Buccini/Pollin will break ground on phase two of the Residences at Harlan Flats, its luxury midrise apartment building on Justison Street. The first phase, completed in early 2015, consisted of 116 units, with a common area, amenity spaces, a courtyard and pool. When the 76 units in the second phase are completed by mid-2017, they could add 100 or more residents to the 1,400 or so already living on the riverfront.

But the project with the greatest potential impact, Purzycki says, is the construction of a bridge over the Christina, linking Market Street to the popular destinations on the west side of the river, the stadium, the Chase Center, the Peterson Wildlife Refuge and the Delaware Children’s Museum.

Work is expected to begin late this year and conclude in early 2019. The state Department of Transportation estimates its cost at between $30 million and $35 million.

The bridge will have one lane in each direction for motor vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians, enabling visitors from the south and east to access current riverfront attractions without having to loop north onto Martin Luther King Boulevard and head back south on Justison Street. The bridge would also provide relief from the congestion that occurs when large numbers of baseball fans or Chase Center guests jam Justison and West streets as they start their drive home.

According to Flynn and Purzycki, the new bridge would not only improve access to the west side of the Christina, it could also jumpstart development of the area between South Market Street and the river.

“It will have a transformative effect,” Purzycki says.

The Riverfront Development Corporation has been acquiring properties in the area, and Flynn has been working on finding a new site for an oil recycling business on the east side of the river.

There is no single vision on how that area might be developed, but Purzycki, Flynn and officials with Buccini/Pollin and the Pettinaro companies, the riverfront’s primary developers, all anticipate a mix of commercial, office and residential uses, plus a couple of restaurants – all compatible with the appearance of the buildings on the west side.

“Through traffic will open up opportunities, and it will change the way the river feels,” Purzycki says.

Flynn envisions a north-south boulevard midway between Market Street and the river, intersected by a series of cross streets, a riverwalk similar to the one on the west bank, and a picnic area with parking for 10 to 15 cars.

“We need very attractive corporate campuses, and we’ll consider some residential development as part of the mix,” Purzycki says. “It will have a riverfront view and easy access to the train station.”

The lack of a clear vision for how the east side might develop need not be considered a negative.

Purzycki, the Riverfront Development Corporation’s first and only executive director, remembers how it got started. Developer Verino Pettinaro began buying riverfront real estate in the mid-1980s, including the land he would eventually sell to the Delaware Stadium Corporation as the site of Frawley Stadium.

By the early 1990s, conceptual drawings appeared, suggesting developing the area south of the train station and east of the river into a mini-version of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. That never happened.

Aside from the stadium, which was built before the RDC was created, most of the original projects on the west side have morphed into different uses.

“The failures are part of the success story,” says Greg Pettinaro, Verino’s son.

“Every project has turned into something wonderful,” Purzycki adds.

The highly touted exhibition center delivered a handful of blockbuster museum-quality presentations before becoming the Chase Center, a multipurpose facility suitable for hosting everything from weddings and proms to car shows and business meetings.

The Shipyard Shops – intended to be an outlet center for catalog retailers – never became a mecca for bargain hunters, but the storefronts have been transformed into an office complex.

Kahunaville, once a popular nightclub, is now the Delaware Children’s Museum. And that’s another intriguing angle to the riverfront story.

Originally conceived as a destination for tourists and shoppers, the riverfront has become family-friendly, with the museum, miniature golf when the weather warms and ice skating when it’s cold, the Stratosphere Trampoline Park, the Penn Cinema Riverfront with its 14 standard screens and an IMAX auditorium, Tubman-Garrett Park and the 212-acre Peterson Wildlife Refuge and the DuPont Environmental Education Center.

“You can see stuff people wouldn’t imagine seeing in a city – bald eagles, ospreys, beaver, a river otter,” says John Harrad, manager of the environmental education center.

Megan McGlinchey, the RDC’s director of operations, calls the children’s museum and the other nonprofits along the riverfront – the Delaware Theater Company, the Delaware Contemporary and the Wilmington Youth Rowing Association – the “unsung heroes” of the area’s success. “They stayed with us. They plugged away, and they’re providing high-quality products,” she says.

Through it all, thanks largely to Buccini/Pollin’s construction of townhouses, condominiums, highrises and midrises on both sides of the Christina, the riverfront’s population has swelled to around 1,400, which, coupled with the 7,000 or so who work there daily, gives the area a vibrancy that didn’t exist 10 years ago.

Just as today’s riverfront isn’t what its creators envisioned two decades ago, there’s no telling what the area will look like 20 years from now.

“These things tend to be organic. You never know what’s going to work,” Purzycki says. “It’s just moving the pieces around the chessboard and trying to find the right formula.”