West Side continues to ‘Grow Together’

Eight years into the implementation of a 10-year revitalization plan, a community of 13,000 Wilmingtonians is living up to the plan’s name: West Side Grows Together.

Everything hasn’t always gone exactly according to plan, but that’s to be expected. What’s important is that the community is moving forward.

The revitalization area—bordered by Interstate 95 on the east, Pennsylvania Avenue on the north, the CSX railroad tracks on the west and Lancaster Avenue on the south—encompasses five distinct neighborhoods: Cool Spring, Tilton Park, Hilltop, Little Italy and The Flats. Unified by a steering committee comprised largely of residents and business owners, communities that once struggled to do things on their own have found their strength in numbers.

Sarah Lester, Director of West Side Grows, holds a construction hard hat before Friday’s groundbreaking at the future site of the West End Neighborhood House Youth Resource Center in Wilmington. Photograph by Butch Comegys

“It’s an amazing team,” says Sarah Lester, whose role as president and CEO of the Cornerstone West Community Development Corporation, the economic development arm of the West End Neighborhood House, puts her at the center of the area’s redevelopment projects.

The initiatives on the West Side take many forms: strengthening businesses on Lincoln and Union streets, the area’s primary commercial corridor; enhancing Fourth Street, a primary artery into downtown Wilmington; beautifying neighborhoods and improving parks and improving the housing stock in order to retain current residents and attract newcomers.

Meeting Overlooked Needs

Improvements being managed directly by West End and Cornerstone West are currently getting a boost from a $4 million capital campaign. About $3 million has already been raised from more than 40 corporate and philanthropic supporters; the public phase of the campaign was launched in mid-November at a groundbreaking ceremony for a housing initiative to serve young men and women aging out of the state’s foster care programs.

Half of the $4 million is earmarked for the housing program. Another $1.8 million will be used for safety improvements at West End facilities and the remaining $200,000 will be used at Bright Spot Farm, West End’s youth training and community-supported agriculture program.

The housing project, called Life Lines III, includes a pair of townhouses—a one-bedroom and a three-bedroom—at the corner of Seventh and Douglas Street, tucked in between two community landmarks, St. Francis Hospital and St. Anthony’s Catholic Church. The one-bedroom unit will meet ADA standards, making it suitable for someone who is hard of hearing or not ambulatory, and the three-bedroom townhouse is expected to accommodate members of the LGBTQ community, says Stacy Shamburger, Life Lines director.

Other pieces of the project include rehabbing two houses on Eighth Street and five on DuPont Street and transforming the former Green Gate Pub, in the 1700 block of West Eighth Street, into a drop-in resource center and office for the program.

The old pub will have a coffee-bar feel on the ground floor, and a conference room to use for meetings and training sessions. “We don’t want it to feel like a shelter,” Shamburger says.

The new construction and rehab, costing $2 million overall, will give Life Lines 10 more beds, bringing its capacity to 33, Shamburger says.  The work is expected to be completed in about nine months.

Since its creation 20 years ago, Life Lines has served more than 700 young men and women, providing not only housing but also counseling, education and work-readiness services like resumé and interview preparation, and even providing clothing suitable for wearing to job interviews.

The state’s foster care program serves clients until they turn 18, but they are often not ready to live independently at that age, Shamburger says. Many participants in Life Lines stay until they are 21, and a few until they are 23, and there’s some in-and-out movement as well.

“When you’re 18 or 19 and go out on your own, sometimes you’re not as ready as you think you are,” she says.

The adjustment to independent living can be even more difficult for those who have lived in multiple foster homes, or who have lived in group homes in other states or spent time in detention centers, she says. “Some of them haven’t been taught how to open a bank account, or go grocery shopping, or learn what healthy relationships look like.”

Another often overlooked group, adults with disabilities, are the intended beneficiaries of another initiative, Solomon’s Court, on the southwest corner of Fourth and Rodney streets. The residential/commercial project that was the dream of the late Rev. Lottie Lee-Davis, pastor of the Be Ready Jesus Is Coming Church across the street. Lee-Davis was killed in an auto accident in September and her brother, Wayne DeShields, has taken over shepherding the project on behalf of the Be Ready Community Development Corporation.

Solomon’s Court will be built in two phases, with the first phase starting by the end of the year and the second in late 2021 or early 2022, DeShields says. The first phase will include 4,600 square feet of ground-floor commercial space and six affordable rental units upstairs. Through a partnership with United Cerebral Palsy, those units will be rented to adults with disabilities, he says.

Another 12 rental units are planned for the project’s second phase.

DeShields says he is looking for “tenants who will have an impact in the community” for the commercial space. Desirable businesses would include a daycare center and doctors’ and dentists’ offices, he says.

The budget for the entire project is about $6 million, DeShields says, with funding being provided through several banks, state agencies, the Longwood Foundation and other donors.

Across Rodney Street from Solomon’s Court is a small park that the late pastor was instrumental in creating during an earlier stage of the West Side Grows revitalization. Once a magnet for drug dealing and prostitution, the park’s playground and benches offer youngsters a place to unwind while parents can watch and relax.

By the time Solomon’s Court is complete, the Latin American Community Center hopes to break ground for a 3½-story childcare center at the corner of Fourth and Van Buren streets. LACC President and CEO Maria Matos says the $7.8 million project will be able accommodate up to 78 children, create 30 new jobs and feature a rooftop playground. “We want to be open by 2023,” Matos says.

Meanwhile, another significant housing redevelopment continues to advance—the revitalization of The Flats by the Woodlawn Trustees. Work has been completed on the third phase of the affordable housing project and those 77 units should be occupied by the end of the year, according to Donna Gooden, Woodlawn vice president. Woodlawn has received authorization from the Delaware State Housing Authority for low-income tax credits essential to financing the 52 units in the fourth phase, so construction is likely to begin in the spring, she said.

Reconstruction of The Flats, a century-old blue-collar community created by Quaker philanthropist-and-mill-owner William Poole Bancroft, is at its midpoint, with 221 units now complete. The rebuilt community, straddling Bancroft Parkway between Fourth and 10th streets, will have 450 housing units, 284 in three-story apartment buildings and the remainder in row homes with private entrances.

The pandemic did not slow the work because Gov. John Carney labeled construction as an essential industry, Gooden said, and the rebuild is still on track for completion in 2026.

Parks And Mural

While improving housing quality is important, building a strong community takes more than bricks and mortar.

Creating the park at Fourth and Rodney and improving Father Tucker Park, next to St. Anthony’s, provided fresh outlets for kids and brought more adults together, Lester said.

“They’re an important piece of healthy communities, especially with COVID-19,” she said, adding that more park improvements are in the works. Next up are Cool Springs park, which gets heavy use by students from the nearby Lewis Elementary School, followed by improvements to Tilton Park, a few blocks away, bordered by Seventh, Franklin, Eighth and Broom streets.

West End Neighborhood House Life Lines Director Stacy Shamburger. Photograph by Butch Comegys

Residents have participated in redesigns for both parks, Lester says. Work at Cool Springs will begin in early 2021; there is no starting date for Tilton Park.

In addition to the parks, “this is also an amazing time for public art,” Lester says, pointing to one recently completed project and two smaller ones about ready to start. Following up on a 2019 mural painted on the Seventh Street bridge over I-95, a team of five artists worked through October to paint another mural on the Sixth Street overpass.

The lettering on the mural, “Our Community Grows Together” reflects not only the spirit of the West Side but also a sense of unity with the West Center City neighborhood on the east side of the interstate, Lester said.

The images on the mural—lots of flowers as well as children jumping rope, engaging in sports, reading books and using their laptops—project warmth and youthful vibrance, says Vanity Constance, the artist who coordinated the effort.

Constance and the other artists—Melissa Benbow, Kameron Rozier, Torian Croxton and Alin Smith—met weekly with neighborhood residents to brainstorm ideas. “We had to listen to everybody… and keep the focus on the youth,” she says.

The two smaller murals will be painted on the sides of buildings, Lester says.

One will be on the east side of the park at Fourth and Rodney and will include recognition of the Rev. Lottie Lee-Davis. The other, with the theme “Our Community, Our Roots,” will be near the corner of Second and Scott streets and will call attention to “the multicultural nature of the West Side,” she says.

Seeing The Light

In an effort to improve safety near Judy Johnson Park, at Third and DuPont streets, West Side Grows has partnered with a Dover-based nonprofit, the Help Initiative, that is building a reputation statewide for its campaign to install LED lighting fixtures in low-income communities.

West Side Grows explored the idea after learning that installations at more than 400 homes in a targeted area had resulted in reduced incidences of crime in Milford.

Starting in the fall of 2019, Help Initiative has installed more than 900 LED lights at residences on the West Side, according to Harold Stafford, the organization’s director of government operations.

The typical package, which costs about $100, includes two fixtures‚—for the front and back of each home—equipped with a sensor that turns the lights on after dark as well as a “switch guard” that locks the light switch in the on position so it is always in use, Stafford says.

“We ask residents to keep the switches on, to tell their neighbors about the program, to call police if they see suspicious activity and to attend a workshop on energy efficiency,” Stafford says.

The workshops, he says, helps residents learn about other Help Initiative energy conservation services, like replacing aerators on kitchen and bath faucets, installing energy-efficient showerheads and setting water heaters to the proper temperature.

“We’ve started to work with the Wilmington Police to collect crime data, so we can show what a difference it makes,” Stafford says.

Even more lighting may be on the horizon. “We’re raising funds to do more,” Lester says. “We want to make it as bright as possible.”

Better Blocks and Dining Out

Some of the most visible recent changes on the West Side have occurred along Union and Lincoln streets, and on Fourth Street as well, with financing through the state’s Neighborhood

Building Blocks program helping businesses improve their facades and install security cameras. The “Better Block” initiative, coordinated by West Side Grows, then led to a change in configuration for parking and sidewalks on Union Street. The changes, completed about two years ago, eliminated one lane of through traffic and added back-in diagonal parking and a bicycle lane on the east side of the roadway.

The 2020 Capital Campaign Groundbreaking at the future site of the West End Neighborhood House Youth Resource Center in Wilmington. Photograph by Butch Comegys

The reconfiguration has made Union Street a little less of a speedway and, until October, made possible an expansion of outdoor dining, especially on Wednesday evenings, providing a boost to restaurants and cafes struggling through the pandemic.

“With COVID, we had to shift gears, pivot and adapt quickly,” says Gabrielle Lantieri, Cornerstone West’s economic development manager. The change has given her less time to work with individual businesses and has limited opportunities for special events like an art loop and vegan week that drew hundreds of visitors to the area last year.

Now she’s trying to “layer our services,” developing ideas that benefit brick-and-mortar businesses, entrepreneurs and the community alike. One recent example: a harvest-themed event with entrepreneurs setting up tables at curbside while restaurants served their guests outdoors. 

On a related front, West Side Grows has played a key role in coordinating Heroes and Restaurants, a project that solicits donations that pays for meals prepared by area restaurants, primarily on the West Side, and delivered to first responders and others on the front lines of the pandemic. Through late October, nearly $45,000 had been raised, with 26 restaurants providing more than 2,600 meals to essential workers.

Even so, some residents and businesses still want more changes, especially on Union Street. “The goal is to make Union more of a main street. There’s still too much roadway,” Lester says.

A consultant has been hired “to do a deep dive within the next six months,” and hopefully deliver a plan for “a more permanent design” that could be executed over a two- to three-year span, she says.

“It’s challenging,” Lester says, “but we’ve made progress in a lot of ways.”

Timely Support

Wilmington Strong Fund provides much-needed grants

For a business, a thousand dollars might not be much, but sometimes it’s just enough to get by.

That’s the thinking behind the Wilmington Strong Fund, a pandemic relief initiative established through a partnership between Cornerstone West Community Development Corporation, the redevelopment engine of the city’s West Side, and the citywide Wilmington Alliance.

As of early November, 117 small businesses in Wilmington, most of them minority-owned, have received $1,000 grants from the fund-—a little something to help them pay vendors, make rent or mortgage payments or keep a worker on the payroll while they await processing of their applications for other loans and grants.

The project got its start in the spring on Wilmington’s West Side, when Capital One bank put up $5,000 to match $5,500 raised by Cornerstone West to provide $500 grants to 101 businesses in the area.

The Wilmington Alliance saw how the program was working and reached out to Cornerstone West to discuss how to replicate the effort. Barclay’s Bank then connected with Wilmington Alliance and committed to a $100,000 grant if the program could be implemented citywide.

Through early November, Wilmington Strong has awarded 117 $1,000 grants, according to Gabrielle Lantieri, Cornerstone West’s economic development manager, who is managing the program.

“$1,000 isn’t going to save a business. On average they say they need $10,000 to stay open,” Lantieri says.

“It’s been a lifesaver,” says artist Eunice LaFate, who used the money for advertising and a rent payment for her gallery on Market Street.  The application process was easy and moved faster than the other loan and grant programs she approached.

“It’s important to distribute the funds where the needs are greatest,” says LaFate, who worked in banking before becoming a fulltime artist.

“We were sick before,” LaFate says, referring to small businesses, “but the pandemic put us on life support.”

— Larry Nagengast

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