Despite some stumbles along the way, its economic measurables are impressive
Mike Purzycki and Mike Hare remember the Wilmington riverfront of the 1990s. Greg Pettinaro’s memory stretches back a decade earlier. All three were there pretty much from the beginning, and what they see now is hardly what they had imagined.
“We bought the first piece of land in 1985,” recalls Pettinaro, referring to property purchased by his father, Verino Pettinaro, the founder of Pettinaro Inc., one of the first developers on the Riverfront.
“I’d like to say we had a vision of what it would become, but it was more the opportunity. The land was available on the river, and you knew it would not stay as warehouses and wasteland forever,” he says.
Pettinaro held onto the land and made a few more purchases, waiting for the right opportunity. Meanwhile, efforts to build a minor league baseball stadium on the Delaware Technical Community College campus in Stanton stalled, and the Riverfront became the popular second choice. In the fall of 1992, after state and city officials cobbled together the needed funds, the new Delaware Stadium Corporation bought property from Pettinaro, and Legends Stadium—later renamed in memory of Wilmington Mayor Dan Frawley—opened in 1993.
At the time, the stadium was, literally and figuratively, pretty much the only diamond on the banks of the Christina.
The Delaware Theater Company had been a lonely pioneer, settling in on Water Street in 1985. The Big Kahuna, a popular nightclub in the building that now houses the Delaware Children’s Museum, occasionally featured big-name entertainers performing on its deck.
Beyond that, there wasn’t much to draw a crowd. No one could mistake Wilmington’s Public Works Yard for a tourist attraction.
Then, in 1995, the state created the Riverfront Development Corporation. Hare, working for the Delaware Economic Development Office, was familiar with the riverfront through the stadium project, so he was assigned to provide staff support to the fledgling RDC board. Then, in early 1996, Purzycki was hired as the RDC’s first executive director, a position he still holds.
“It was pretty mangy almost everywhere you looked,” Purzycki recalls. “There was no relief in any direction. There was no access to the river. You had all these old cranes standing [and] the ground was all contaminated.”
But there was a vision—a plan to emulate Baltimore’s Inner Harbor on the Christina.
Says Hare: “The thought was that you had to focus on the portions of the Riverfront where there was an economic pulse,” the area closer to the Amtrak station and South Market street.
Hare left the RDC in 2008 to join the Buccini/Pollin Group, which has become a major development force at the Riverfront and throughout Wilmington. “The original harbor would have been near where our [Buccini/Pollin] building is now on A Street,” he says.
That dream didn’t come true, but the Riverfront has turned out pretty well nevertheless.
Major businesses like AAA MidAtlantic, Barclay’s Bank Delaware and Capital One (formerly ING Direct) and student loan servicer Navient now call the Riverfront home. So do 10 restaurants, a 14-screen movie theater, the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts, a supermarket and a new 180-room Westin hotel.
There are now about 2,000 people living in the Riverfront area, and about 6,000 working there, according to Jeff Flynn, Wilmington’s director of economic development.
$32 Million in Revenue Annually
A 2012 study by the University of Delaware’s Center for Applied Demography and Survey Research concluded that the Riverfront is generating $32 million in revenues annually, a 1,000 percent increase from 1996, and tax revenues to the city have more than doubled its $21 million investment in Riverfront projects. Average pay for jobs at the Riverfront is $68,000, the study found. (The study was completed prior to the opening of the theater and hotel.)
In the early years, there was reason to doubt whether the Riverfront would ultimately prove successful, although there were some initial positive developments. Amtrak moved its Consolidated National Operations Center to a building next to the train station, bringing about 400 jobs. Work began on improvements to the station. Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park was completed in 1999, providing the eastern terminus for the 1.7-mile Riverwalk that would extend to the Russell W. Peterson Wildlife Refuge, completed 10 years later.
The First USA Riverfront Arts Center, completed in 1998, hosted a series of world-class exhibitions, but couldn’t sustain its early successes.
At about the same time, Pettinaro built the Shipyard Shops, intended to be an outlet center for catalog marketers like L.L. Bean and Coldwater Creek. That didn’t take hold either.
Greg Pettinaro chalks it up as a case of wrong time, wrong place. A much larger outlet complex was growing in Rehoboth in the mid-1990s and catalog marketers were not doing well. “Wilmington just wasn’t the place for it to be,” he says.
Both venues, however, would be successfully repurposed.
The arts center has morphed into the Chase Center on the Riverfront, a multipurpose meetings/conventions/special events facility that, with completion of the Westin Hotel last year, is now positioned to host multi-day events.
The Shipyard Shops have become the Shipyard Center. The retail is gone, replaced largely by offices and businesses with a health and fitness orientation. They’re now 92 percent rented, Pettinaro says.
Over time, the buildings between the train station and the stadium gradually took on new life. Warehouses became offices, restaurants and shops. The Riverwalk replaced a shoreline once strewn with litter and debris.
New businesses recognized the intrinsic value of the prime real estate. Most notably, Arkadi Kuhlmann, CEO of the new ING Direct internet bank, realized that thousands of Amtrak passengers would see his bank’s signature orange ball as trains passed through the Wilmington station. Even better, Kuhlmann would note, he could impress the bank’s Dutch owners by boasting an address on Orange Street.
Residential Projects Key
With each new building came hope—a hope that the arrival of more workers would push the Riverfront past the tipping point to success. “There were a lot of things that people thought were going to be the piece that makes it great,” Pettinaro recalls.
But it took Buccini/Pollin’s arrival—and its construction of two residential projects —to make that happen. Christina Landing and Christina Towers on the east side of the river and Justison Landing on the west would generate the synergy that truly made the Riverfront a place to live as well as to work and play.
In hindsight, some wonder whether it could have come sooner.
Purzycki, Hare and Pettinaro agree that the answer is no. All three say that residential development is a follower, not a leader.
“Nobody goes to live in a place if you promise them amenities. They go to live there after the amenities are in place,” Purzycki says.
“The residential came along at the right time. It was a natural progression,” adds Pettinaro.
Purzycki jokes about how, for early marketing pieces, RDC used time-lapse photography to show groups of people strolling down the Riverwalk. “You couldn’t find six people on it at one time,” he laughs.
The apartments, condos and townhouses have made a big difference.
“It changes how people feel about the place,” he says. “You see people strolling out the door, bicycling on the Riverwalk. It feels really good. Now it’s a nice place to live.”
Throw in the last two additions—the hotel and the theater—and it appears that the Riverfront has finally achieved the essential mix of business, residential and entertainment venues.
For the first time, Purzycki can say with confidence, “I don’t think right now that we have to find something brand new. There’s no gaping hole that we have to fill.”
More Developments Ahead
But the work is hardly done. A miniature golf course opened last month and the Riverfront Market is getting a makeover. (See page 30.)
The state announced plans last month for a pedestrian/bicycle bridge over the Christina that would link trails that start in New Castle to the Riverfront and the rest of Wilmington.
Somewhere over the horizon (it was in the state’s 2013 capital improvements plan but got wiped out in the recession spending squeeze) is a bridge that would connect South Market Street to the Riverfront. The bridge would not only improve access from the south and east, but it would also provide relief from the congestion that occurs at the end of the workday and after big events at the stadium and the Chase Center, Purzycki says.
Also, he says, the connector would spur additional business development on the east side of the river.
There’s room for five or six more development projects at the Riverfront, Purzycki and Pettinaro say, but they’re not sure what will come next.
Pleased with the early success of the Westin, Purzycki is interested in a second hotel. Another parking garage is also possible.
Buccini/Pollin plans to build another 80 apartments on the west side of its new Harlan Flats building, across from the cinema, Hare says. It is also contemplating plans for the open space it holds between Barclay’s Bank Delaware and its first apartment building on the east side of Justison Landing. “It was originally proposed as offices, but we’re waiting to see what the market will tell us.” Hare says. “Should it be office, or some type of mixed use with residential?”
Part of the answer, he admits, may lie elsewhere in the city, depending on how demand develops for housing along Market Street and in the new Creative District between Market and Washington streets.
“The future is bright,” Pettinaro says.
“It’s unimaginable,” Hare says. “Mike [Purzycki] and I would tour sites with prospective clients and say ‘the Riverwalk is going to be here, and the theater is going to be here,’ and to see so much of it come to fruition in the past 20 years…. It’s become a source of pride for all Wilmingtonians. Anyone who visits here feels the success.”