Wheels of Change

Krista Connor

A new campaign at the Urban Bike Project will double the number of city residents the cycling-oriented nonprofit serves

The building at 1500 N. Walnut St. has seen its share of wear and change. Constructed in 1907 as a Wilmington Public Works Department facility that housed horse-drawn repair equipment, it eventually became the city’s police stables. Later, the city-owned property was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and eventually leased to another organization until 2011. It stood empty for two years, when nonprofit Urban Bike Project (UBP) introduced repairs of a different kind after moving its headquarters there from North Market Street.

Urban Bike Project provides bicycle resources to thousands of Wilmington residents with transportation and recreational needs. The spacious warehouse now is used for bike repairs and community workshops, and bikes are sold and given away from there, too.

The space is about to undergo another change with the renovation of its lifetime, thanks to the Capital Campaign, an initiative launching at the end of the month.   

Young bicycle mechanics at Urban Bike Project. Photo courtesy of the UBP.

Sourced from donor funds and state historic tax credits, the Capital Campaign will see the building updated and made more efficient for community bike repair services, workshops and more, with the help of general contractors at The Challenge Program. Financial donors include The Longwood Foundation, Welfare Foundation, Laffey-McHugh Foundation and more. 

Construction will begin this winter, with a projected December start date.

UBP Executive Director Laura Wilburn says the renovations will raise visibility and attract more people in need. “More people will know about us, more people will be interested in coming here. I can’t tell you the amount of times people would say ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were still there — the building looks closed up.’”

As a result, Wilburn says UBP will be able to expand programming and double the number of city residents they work with. 

Serving Clients Better

“Ultimately, we want to create a space that our current customers can feel proud of,” says Wilburn. “We work with over 200 kids every year, and this is a place they feel a lot of ownership over; they can come volunteer to earn shop credit, work on bikes and brag about where they work, so to give them a space that looks and feels respected in that way could be a big difference for them.”

UBP’s community impact is substantial. Since it was founded more than 10 years ago by Sarah Green, David Hallberg, Brian Windle and Dwayne Crosby, it has served thousands. In 2017 alone, the Bike Project had 2,157 visitors, sold 259 bikes and gave away 60 bikes to children and adults in need. All services and programs are run by Wilburn, Shop Manager Sean McGonegal and 15-20 volunteers each week.

Because of UBP’s services, many residents with transportation barriers have been able to get and maintain jobs after either purchasing or being given bicycles to get them to and from work.

Of residents who have been given bikes and kept in touch with UBP, Wilburn says 75 percent have been successful in using their bikes to get back and forth to work at least six months later. “One guy had no income when he came to us, but he got a job and now he’s making $30,000 at the port,” she says. The man eventually was able to purchase a car, but Wilburn says he still cycles to work for the exercise.

She hopes to see more stories like this with the renovation. “We’re going to be able to serve our clients better. I think we’re going to be able to accommodate more people during the hours that we’re open, and be open more hours.”

Because of the current layout, an open-door policy doesn’t really work right now, Wilburn says, but it will with the new design.

“The way the new floorplan’s going to work, it’ll be easy to have the doors to the front unlocked with a glass door-front that makes it look like it’s open,” says Wilburn. “We’ll be able to see straight to the front, they’ll be able to see us.”

Role of the Challenge Program

If you’ve been to Stitch House Brewery, Grain locations and Harvest House, to name a few, then you’ve seen the signature style of the Challenge Program team. The program provides construction training for Delaware’s at-risk youth, who in turn utilize their skills on major projects like the Bike Project.

“We’re going to be working with them to build a practical, durable interior, but one that has a very light, airy feel, with a fun, industrial-chic look,” says Wilburn.

As general contractors of the renovation, the team is going to work directly on interior fit-outs. They have already completed the office. They’re pulling in all outside subcontractors—plumber, electrician, roofer, etc.—getting all the quotes, creating the budget and construction schedule.

The property makes up an entire block that extends from Clifford Brown Walk and from 15th Street all the way to 16th Street. So changes will certainly not go unnoticed. Exterior renovations, including a restored façade, will help meet Wilburn’s goal of raising visibility and making the structure beautiful again, she says.

“We envision this as a thriving center of community activity and bringing it back to life. People are trying to revitalize this neighborhood. We want to be a part of that, not hinder it.”

She said that with security always being a priority, she’s bringing in artists to fabricate “funky, unique, attractive” security grates made from old bike parts for the front windows.

Other exterior renovations include structural stabilization of the roof, which is in major disrepair, Wilburn says.

The Walnut Street entrance, currently inaccessible, will be reopened, and the interior space will be opened up and brightened with natural light from windows that are currently boarded up. Climate control will be introduced, which will be especially welcome during summer months.

Good for Community Initiatives

Space will be made for diverse programming and events including existing ones like Open Shop Program, Free Bike Program, Youth Shop, School Earn-a-Bike Programs, classes and more, says Wilburn.

With the Capital Campaign changes, services will be expanded to give members of the community a chance to take the initiative in programming, too. Wilburn says there will be opportunities for the community to hold events and meetings at the space. “There’s not a lot in the way of community centers in the Upper East Side right now, so this is something to provide for the neighborhood to have a nice community hub,” says Wilburn. “And it is definitely the biggest undertaking we’ve taken on to date.”

For more information or to donate to the Capital Campaign, go to urbanbikeproject.org/capitalcampaign.

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