Creative Energy

Condos and houses designed by and marketed to artists—a $1.7 million project—breaks ground in Quaker Hill next month

With downtown revitalization having taken hold along Market Street, the Wilmington Renaissance Corporation is ready to extend the experience and investment with the launch of a comprehensive plan to establish a Creative District west of Market, bordered by Shipley, Fourth, Washington and Ninth streets.

The first concrete steps toward implementation of the plan, whose development started with a series of community focus groups in 2012, will come in early June. That’s when Interfaith Community Housing of Delaware will break ground on a $1.7 million project to transform six vacant buildings in Quaker Hill into seven one-bedroom condominium units and three two- and three-bedroom homes.

The units, with condo prices starting around $60,000 and the houses for up to $130,000 or so, “will be designed by artists and marketed and sold to artists,” says Gary Pollio, Interfaith’s executive director. Pricing will be set so monthly costs approximate what residents would be paying for a rental property of similar size, and purchasers will have to pledge to occupy their units for at least 10 years, he says.
Each unit will include studio space so artists will be able to work in their homes, Pollio says. The condos and homes should be ready for occupancy between June and September 2016.

Stabilizing the neighborhood by strengthening home ownership and bringing excitement to the community by making it attractive to artists and other creators are essential components of the plan. The area would eventually include new housing and retail, creative and gallery space for artists, and streetscape improvements, including a series of small parks.

A rendering of what a typical Creative District living space could look like. Drawing provided by WRC

A rendering of what a typical Creative District living space could look like. Drawing provided by WRC

“We’re widening the value of the very narrow Market Street corridor,” says Leonard Sophrin, Wilmington’s city planning director. “We’re not simply looking at a street. We’re looking at a larger grouping of city blocks, to create a more vibrant downtown.”

“It’s ambitious, but it’s really necessary,” says Cassandra Marshall, president of the Quaker Hill Neighborhood Association. “You’ve got a lot of development on Market Street, downtown on Rodney Square, and to the south at the Riverfront. Then you’ve got this one place in the middle that needs some stabilization in order to protect all those other investments.”

“Bringing art into the community can change the culture of our city, change the culture of our neighborhoods,” says Wilmington City Councilman Nnamdi Chukwuocha. “It could make the area very different from what it is today.”

“We talk about this as a marathon, not a sprint,” says Carrie Gray, Wilmington Renaissance managing director. “There will be some tangible changes that people will see in the next two or three years … but it could be 15 to 20 years [before it is completed],” she says.

Given that time line, comparisons to Wilmington’s Riverfront redevelopment, which began more than 20 years ago, are almost inevitable. One of the lessons learned from the Riverfront experience, proponents of the Creative District plan say, is that the infusion of a strong residential component was essential to ensuring the success of the commercial and office projects that marked the first stages of that redevelopment.

Bringing art into the community can change the culture of our city, change the culture of our neighborhoods.
—Wilmington City Councilman Nnamdi Chukwuocha

And that, Gray and Pollio say, is a big reason why the Creative District initiative will begin with housing.

A rendering of what a typical Creative District living space could look like. Drawing provided by WRC

A rendering of what a typical Creative District living space could look like. Drawing provided by WRC

“Most artists don’t have a lot of income, so they need affordable places to live, work and conduct their business,” says Raye Jones Avery, executive director of the Christina Cultural Arts Center and a Quaker Hill resident.

As more artists move into the area, she says, they will play a key role in shaping the district’s future. “The artist imagines possibilities. You have to be able to see it when others can’t see it. If we don’t believe it will happen, it won’t happen.”

What Avery and others hope to see happen is the gradual revival of a neighborhood that lacks cohesion and currently is a large gap between the redeveloped Riverfront and Market Street corridors and the downtown office district to the north.

“Having this kind of creative district will be very attractive to a lot of folks who might not have thought of Wilmington” as a place to work and live, Gov. Jack Markell says.

“Great employers want to attract very talented people,” Markell says, “and talented people want to work where they want to live—in nice places where there are outdoor spaces, weekend activities, restaurants, and are walkable, bikable, and have arts outlets as well.”
The Creative District plan, developed through a partnership that includes Wilmington Renaissance, Interfaith Housing, Christina Cultural Arts Center, the Chris White Community Development Center and the Quaker Hill Neighborhood Association, relies on “place-based strategies,” an incremental effort to place compatible activities near each other in a way that unifies the entire community.

Under this approach, the Quaker Hill area, in the southwest corner of the district, becomes the focal point for low-cost live/work options, with infill development and rehabilitation of vacant buildings on or near West Street. As residential development expands in the district it would gradually move to the east and north, Gray and Pollio say.

Meanwhile, Shipley Street, long regarded as the gritty service entrance to businesses fronting on Market Street, would see a gradual transformation focusing on streetscape and infill projects. The northeast corner of the district—bordered by Shipley, Eighth, Orange and Ninth streets—is already getting a major boost with construction of a 231-unit apartment building on the site of a former parking garage.

Heading south, widening sidewalks and burying utility lines along Shipley have been discussed for years, Gray says. Painting murals on the walls of existing buildings is likely, she adds. Other ideas mentioned in the plan include art galleries, small shops, temporary installations and event programming to reinforce Shipley’s linkage to Market Street.

Meanwhile, the goal for Washington Street, on the western edge of the district, would be the creation of a “village of social practice,” a home for art-based social services programs.
This combination of initiatives is anticipated to support existing shops along Ninth Street and encourage developers to improve existing structures and develop surface parking areas and vacant lots for higher uses.

Another key to the district’s development is the creation of a “maker space,” which Gray and others like to describe as “a high school woodshop on steroids.” The model under consideration is Philadelphia’s NextFab, which offers members the space and use of equipment for woodworking, metalworking, jewelry making and high-tech tasks like 3D printing, laser cutting and computer-aided design.

“It’s a gym for innovators,” Gray says. “The average person interested in doing these types of projects isn’t going to be able to afford to buy the equipment for their homes. Here, you pay your monthly fee, use the equipment on your own or get help from someone who works there.”

“If NextFab comes here, that’s huge,” says Joel McLaughlin, a Quaker Hill resident and home rehabilitator who has seen the operation firsthand in Philadelphia. “It attracts all kinds of people and creates synergies among them.”

Maker spaces contribute to economic development in the areas where they are located, adds Laura Semmelroth, Wilmington Renaissance’s Creative District strategist.

NextFab, Gray says, has served as an incubator for biomedical and robotics businesses in Philadelphia.

NextFab’s operators are scouting vacant buildings in the Creative District for a possible location, “an industrial-type space with a loading dock so it’s easy to move furnishings and materials in and out,” Gray says.

Neither the cost nor the funding sources for the Creative District initiative are clearly defined. Gray gives $50 million as a ballpark estimate for completing all the projects described in the master plan, but points out that “you don’t know what a particular project is going to cost until you know all the details.”

Wilmington Renaissance received $300,000 from the Longwood Foundation for Creative District planning, and it is a finalist for a grant from ArtPlace America, a collaboration among 12 foundations, whose recipients will be selected in June. Some funding will come through the state’s new Downtown Development District program and the Delaware State Housing Authority’s Strong Neighborhoods Housing Fund. Some projects may also qualify for special tax credits, including historic preservation credits for work done in Quaker Hill.
In addition, city and state officials have been discussing proposals to introduce legislation that would permit establishment of a “land bank,” an entity that would acquire and hold vacant properties within designated areas and then make them available for development.

(As of mid-April, enabling legislation had not been introduced in the General Assembly.)

“It would be another tool in the toolbox,” says Cleon Cauley, chief of staff for Wilmington Mayor Dennis P. Williams.

Gathering properties together and pooling resources makes it easier to create the critical mass that’s needed for successful development, Sophrin says.

At least two banks with major operations in Wilmington, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America, are also potential supporters, according to Glenn Moore, a Delmarva Power vice president who serves as chair of Wilmington Renaissance’s board of directors.

As detailed plans for specific projects come together, Creative District planners will attempt to guide developers to the most appropriate funding sources, including foundations, government agencies, traditional banks and angel investors, Gray says.

“If a few pioneers make an investment, others will follow,” Avery says.

How long it takes remains to be seen but, Markell says, “if you don’t start, you’re never going to get there.”

Everyone involved in the planning is confident that significant progress, in addition to the housing in Quaker Hill, will be evident in two to three years.

“The real work is getting it toward a tipping point, when [the revitalization] starts running itself,” Marshall says. “How long that will take, I don’t know, but it will definitely take a long time.”

The process, Cauley adds, might never end. “Newer versions of [people like] us will come in and want to do more and more, and that’s a good thing,” he says.

More discussion of Wilmington’s Creative District will be on the agenda for the Wilmington Renaissance Corporation’s annual meeting, set for 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, May 5, at World Cafe Live at the Queen, 500 N. Market St.
Keynote speaker for the event will be Ethan Kent, senior vice president at the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit that promotes transformational placemaking initiatives like the Creative District around the world.

Gov. Markell will also speak at the event.

Tickets are $50 per person and $475 for a table of 10. A gourmet breakfast and complimentary parking at the Courthouse Parking Garage are included. For tickets, call 425-5500, or purchase them online at wrc-annual-meeting.eventbrite.com.

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