With the infusion of millions in capital funds and the efforts of government and the community, a neglected area of Wilmington is now looking to a brighter future

Tucked into Wilmington’s northeast corner, Riverside has seldom gotten much attention.

Perhaps that explains why it’s one of the city’s poorest communities, one where, according to 2010 U.S. Census data, 38 percent of the 18-and-over population had not graduated from high school, only one in eight adult males had a job and nearly one-quarter of its 3,275 residents were living in poverty.

But Wilmington is starting to pay attention to Riverside now, and its residents are starting to work to improve the community’s living conditions and its image.

With the possible infusion of up to $100 million in capital, coupled with free—yes, free—consulting advice and technical support from a well-endowed nonprofit called Purpose Built Communities, the newly created REACH Riverside Development Corp. has kicked off a major revitalization effort for the area bordered by the Brandywine on the south, the city line on the north and, for the most part, squeezed between Northeast Boulevard and the Amtrak rail line, with the Howard E. Young Correctional Institution, long known as Gander Hill, and strings of mostly vacant warehouses appended to its southeastern edge.

Many of the details are being worked out now, and will be unveiled later in the spring, but the key components are clear:

• The nearly 300 units in the Wilmington Housing Authority’s aging Riverside project will be demolished and replaced by about 400 units of new housing, most likely to be built on the east side of Bowers Street on land owned by the Kingswood Community Center.

• The community center itself, a neighborhood hub that includes a childcare operation, a senior center and an array of social services and recreational programs, will be replaced by a new building that would provide even more services, perhaps including a wellness center.

• Developing a “cradle to college or career education pipeline,” with the East Side Charter School, which now offers pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, eventually expanding to include high school grades.

• A new facility, called the Teen Warehouse, would open in the former Prestige Academy charter school building, at 12th and Thatcher streets, to provide an array of recreational, social, academic, athletic and wellness services that teenagers could access in the afternoon and evening hours.

As these pieces of the plan come together, REACH Riverside organizers believe the project will trigger a wave of retail and commercial redevelopment along Northeast Boulevard, providing essential services for what they hope will become a thriving community.

10-Year Timeline

The concept for a new Riverside may seem massive, as do the $100 million price tag and 10-year timeline, but Mayor Mike Purzycki says the project will be “way, way easier than the [Christina] Riverfront,” a revitalization he knows well from having spent more than two decades as head of the Riverfront Development Corporation, guiding transformation of that area into an office/recreation/residential center.

Purzycki’s optimism stems from two factors: the support of Purpose Built Communities, which has successfully supported redevelopment projects in 19 other cities, and an alliance of Riverside residents and community leaders with potent agencies and individuals that have a statewide reputation for getting things done.

The key figures guiding the project are Charlie McDowell, a retired Wilmington attorney whose interest in Riverside developed after he joined the board of directors of the East Side Charter School 12 years ago, and Logan Herring, Kingswood Community Center executive director and grandson of the late Rev. Dr. Otis A. Herring, a longtime civic leader and beloved pastor of Union Baptist Church.

McDowell is now chairman of the REACH Riverside Development Corporation, and Herring is serving as the organization’s executive director. In Purpose Built Communities’ lingo, REACH Riverside is the “community quarterback,” the agency through which all the redevelopment plans flow. REACH, by the way, is an acronym for Redevelopment, Education and Community Health, which are pillars in Purpose Built Communities’ transformation strategy.

The organization tailors its services to the needs and dynamics of the communities that it is working to revitalize. With a goal of breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, it works to create pathways out of poverty for the lowest-income residents while building strong, economically diverse communities.

Purpose Built Communities

After joining the East Side Charter board, McDowell says, “it didn’t take long to figure out that no matter how good a job we did at the school, with poverty, dysfunctional families and limited employment opportunities in the community, our work would be like spitting into the wind.”

About five years ago, McDowell read an article about Purpose Built Communities and decided to check it out. He invited Purzycki, real estate developer Rob Buccini, co-president of the Buccini/Pollin Group, and Fred Purnell, then the executive director of the Wilmington Housing Authority, to join him on a scouting expedition to Atlanta, Georgia, in January 2014.

“It was incredibly impressive,” McDowell recalls, describing their visit to the East Lake community in Atlanta. “It was a long-term project … but they had a game plan for revitalizing the neighborhood and bringing it out of poverty.”

However, McDowell says, “the last administration [of Mayor Dennis P. Williams] and the WHA leadership were not particularly interested” in adopting the Purpose Built model, “so I went to work to help get Mike elected mayor.”

Logan Herring, grandson of the late Rev. Otis A. Herring, is executive director of the Kingswood Community Center. Photo by Justin Heyes

Purnell left WHA in 2016 and Purzycki, within weeks of taking office as mayor in January 2017, reshuffled the authority’s board of directors. Also in 2016, Herring was named Kingswood’s executive director, taking over a poorly managed and debt-ridden organization whose stature had fallen to the point that it was no longer securing grants from the state’s major foundations.

Over the past two-plus years, as Herring rebuilt Kingswood’s standing in the community, he and McDowell stayed in touch with Purpose Built Communities, learning more about its operation and taking preliminary steps to develop alliances and to involve the community in the planning process.

Support from State, County and City

They garnered support from the state, New Castle County and city governments, with the General Assembly including $1 million in this year’s bond bill to help get the ball rolling. The housing authority, under new Executive Director John Hill, is also on board. The University of Delaware, through its healthy communities initiative, has stepped in, with tentative plans to include a wellness center in the Teen Warehouse. Both UD and Delaware State University are exploring ways to provide other services at the new Kingswood Community Center.

While lining up partnerships with business and government agencies, Herring began what he calls “a robust community engagement process,” holding sessions with area residents to gather their input and keep them posted on developments before major announcements were made.

Community advocate Beatrice Patton Dixon, who spent some of her childhood living in WHA’s Eastlake project across Northeast Boulevard, now serves on the REACH Riverside board. She’s impressed with Herring’s outreach efforts, and believes the process will preserve and strengthen the sense of community that now exists in Riverside.

Most of all, she hopes it will avoid a recurrence of what happened more than a decade ago, when Eastlake was demolished and a new Village of Eastlake was built in its place. At the time, Patton Dixon recalls, WHA relocated residents to units elsewhere in the city and promised them that they could return to Eastlake when new housing was completed. However, few of those residents actually returned, she says.

As now planned, the old Riverside housing units won’t be demolished until new homes are built, so it’s more likely current residents will stay in the neighborhood. “If we scatter residents,” she says, “we don’t have as much ability to sustain the community.”

Community Development Organizer Appointed

Details of the master plan will be worked out in the next few months, in time for REACH Riverside to meet an April deadline to file an application with the Delaware State Housing Authority for low-income housing tax credits that would help fund the first phase of housing construction.

Purpose Built Communities has assigned a community development organizer to work directly with REACH Riverside, according to Eytan Davidson, the organization’s director of communications. The organizer may make occasional visits to Wilmington, but most of his contact will be through phone calls and emails, Davidson says. In addition, REACH Riverside officials will meet at least twice a year with Purpose Built leaders, and they will be able to confer with leaders in other communities affiliated with Purpose Built.

The first physical sign of progress in the Riverside redevelopment will be work on the Teen Warehouse. Capital One Bank, which had foreclosed on the Prestige Academy property in mid-2018, had agreed to donate the building, and paperwork was expected to be completed by the end of last month. Interior renovations should begin soon, with the goal of opening the center at the start of the 2019-2020 school year.

The housing component will come next. McDowell and Herring anticipate the first phase of construction will begin in the spring of 2020 and include 100 to 120 of the 400 planned units. Pennrose LLC, a Philadelphia-based company that specializes in mixed-income affordable housing, would develop and manage the new housing, Herring says.

The housing would be a mix of subsidized and market-rate units, attractive enough to appeal to individuals and families with incomes above those of public housing residents.

The Kingswood Community Center is to be replaced by a new building that would provide more services, perhaps including a wellness center. Photo by Justin Heyes

Herring hopes that construction of a new building for Kingswood Community Center can begin at the same time as the first phase of the new housing, or soon after that. The timing, as well as decisions on the design, services and amenities in the new building, will likely be determined as the master plan is written.

Expansion of the East Side Charter School to include high school grades is several years away, McDowell says. While East Side has a generally good reputation among the state’s charter schools, he says its leaders would like to strengthen its existing programming before launching an expansion. Adding more grade levels would require securing the approval of the Charter Schools Office in the state Department of Education.

‘Back of the Envelope’ Estimates

Still to be determined is how the retail-commercial corridor along Northeast Boulevard would be redeveloped. Herring and McDowell believe the new residential construction will make the commercial zone more attractive to private investors. The arrival of new businesses would mean more jobs for Riverside residents, Herring says.

Herring admits to using “back of the envelope” estimates to come up with the $100 million project cost, and says the money that will be spent in Riverside will come from a variety of sources: government grants, like the $1 million provided by the state; the low-income housing tax credits; grants from local foundations and businesses, and private investments. In addition, Herring says, REACH Riverside plans to hire a consulting firm experienced in securing grants from national foundations to assist with fundraising.

Dixon, the neighborhood advocate, says she is pleased that the revitalization effort thus far has stemmed the “historical tide” of having leaders of powerful institutions, rather than community residents, making decisions about what is best for the areas they are trying to change.

“We can become a national model” for community revitalization, she says, if political leaders, financial interests and residents work together throughout the process.

As Herring and Dixon note, while Riverside residents have become accustomed to being overlooked and pushed aside for many years, it is critically important that they understand that the anticipated changes are not going to occur overnight.

“This is not something that’s going to happen in two or three years. Ten years is a reasonable time to start looking for significant results,” says Davidson, the Purpose Built executive.

“We’re working with people so they don’t feel marginalized and isolated,” Purzycki says. “We have to take it one step at a time, but we want to become a community where everybody feels like they’re part of the franchise.”

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