Grand experiment continues to build on its success
By Ken Mammarella
With roughly 90% of the original Wilmington Riverfront project already spoken for, the Riverfront Development Corp. is making a dramatic expansion onto 86 acres on the east bank of the Christina.
A master plan for Riverfront East calls for 4.7 million square feet of residential space in 4,291 units, 1.9 million square feet of office space, 350,000 square feet of retail, 8,900 parking spaces in garages, 650 street parking spaces and 13 acres as open space.
“A big wow,” said Tony Mottola, the RDC’s new director of projects. “Pretty spectacular.”
Yup — if it all happens. Consider these comparisons: For most of the last two decades, building permits were issued for less than 1,000 apartments each year in New Castle, Cecil and Salem counties. The DuPont Building is 950,000 square feet, and Fairfax Shopping Center is 134,000. Christiana Mall has 6,500 parking spaces. Rodney Square is 1.5 acres.
One project that has just broken ground looks to be a stunner. The Luxor is a 193-unit complex, announced as a “highly amenitized, socially integrated, technologically advanced apartment community located close to transportation, entertainment, recreation and employment venues.”
The Luxor is one confirmed outcome of $100 million budgeted for Riverfront East remediation, infrastructure and other improvements by the RDC.
“We’re building infrastructure to welcome development,” Mottola said. “Very few places have that much land ready to go, and nobody in the private sector could do what we’re doing to set the stage for development.”
Public investment on the Riverfront has so far hit $504 million, according to RDC marketing manager Joe Valenti. That’s $460 million from the state, $27 million from Wilmington and $17 million from other sources.
Location, Location, Location
Wilmington began on the Christina River in 1638 when Swedes landed at The Rocks (a park marks roughly the area) and established the first permanent European settlement in Delaware. The Rocks is sorta part of the Riverfront (more on that later).
Fast-forward several centuries, and the riverfront was famous for building ships and railcars and other manufacturing. The Dravo Corp. was Delaware’s largest employer in World War II.
Advance several decades, and the companies — and jobs — were gone, and it was a heavily polluted and mostly vacant industrial zone.
“Typical brownfield, with chemical spills, cesspools, junkyards and crumbling abandoned buildings,” a 2018 University of Delaware report on the RDC website concluded.
In 1995, a gubernatorial task force created the RDC and charged it with “creating economic vitality along the Brandywine and Christina rivers, while enhancing the environment, encouraging historic preservation and promoting public access.”
The most prominent new buildings so far probably have been Frawley Stadium, home to the Wilmington Blue Rocks, and the Chase Center on the Riverfront, at first a destination for traveling exhibitions and now known for meetings, commencements and other events.
Valenti said 90% of Riverfront West is “spoken for,” but that doesn’t mean it’s complete. Multiple lots are vacant, with empty buildings, pieces of construction equipment and patchy gravel driveways. No signs on the chain-link fences reveal what’s planned.
That UD report estimated 6,000 jobs on the Riverfront, half new to the state. These jobs aren’t about making things, like the old days, but are well-paid knowledge work, providing services. The largest Riverfront employers today are Barclays Bank and AAA, Valenti said.
Riverfront West already channels the buzzwords of being a place to “live, work and play,” and the RDC is doubling down on the concept for Riverfront East by, for example, splitting the planned 350,000 square feet of retail space into two categories: destination (such as restaurants that draw people from a distance) and convenience (supporting the daily needs of residents and visitors).
One factor in the high hopes for growth of the Riverfront is its quick access to other areas for jobs and amenities: a short walk to the Wilmington train station, a longer walk to downtown Wilmington, a short drive to Wilmington’s suburbs and a longer drive to the Philadelphia and New Castle airports.
That access encourages 15% of residents to use apartments in 101 Avenue of the Arts as a second home for work, said Christie Haupt, director of residential for Capano Management.
That access also draws in Pennsylvanians looking for a lower cost of living, cutting-edge dining and clean streets, a massive, 5,500-word article in the May issue of Philadelphia magazine concludes.
David Banks, who owns Banks’ Seafood Kitchen and has run a Riverfront restaurant since 2003, said it’s a lucrative destination. “Week after week they say they saw us on TV,” he said of patrons from Pennsylvania and South Jersey who cite his commercials and appearances on WCAU/10. Plus, “the Riverwalk and the river itself are attractive.”
Another draw: a desire to be part of the action. “Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd,” Mottola said.
Consider the Chase Fieldhouse and the Chase Turf Fields Complex. They’re technically not part of the RDC’s Riverfront, but these adjacent redevelopment projects have the potential to bring in thousands for games and other social events. The complex calls itself “a community epicenter.”
RDC maps also don’t include River House, 300 planned apartments on A Street with predictable luxury amenities, plus a saltwater swimming pool, pet-washing station, kayak storage and boat launch.
And they don’t highlight the South Wilmington Wetlands Park, an important infrastructure project created to reduce flooding in the Southbridge neighborhood, which itself is the target of Wilmington’s South Walnut Street Urban Renewal Plan.
There’s also talk of an aquatics center and indoor track nearby on the eastern bank, Mottola said.
Connecting the Dots
The Riverfront (anticipate Riverfront West and East branding) is mapped in different ways.
A security district, for instance, is bounded by wetlands on the south (the 288-acre Russell W. Peterson Wildlife Refuge). The boundary heads north up along Interstate 95, zigzags in the northwest until it reaches Martin Luther King Boulevard. It then follows the railroad tracks, Church Street and the Christina – plus jumping over the river to grab Riverfront East housing in Christina Landing.
The marketing map on riverfrontwilm.com, on the other hand, includes more blocks in the northwest corner and also points to the Seventh Street Peninsula, home to The Rocks, the Kalmar Nyckel tall ship replica and the Copeland Maritime Center. Although close, the peninsula and the Riverfront have significantly different vibes.
Riverfront East is split administratively into three areas: the first two are bound by the river, S. Market Street and New Sweden Street, all land owned by the RDC or being bought by it, Mottola said. A third section covers land between S. Market, S. Walnut and A streets.
Various maps show how the past is memorialized in names, including Dravo Plaza, Harlan Boulevard and Hollingsworth Street, named after shipbuilders; Tubman-Garrett Park, named after abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Thomas Garrett; and New Sweden Street, for the Swedes who started it all on The Rocks.
Later notables on the maps include Judy Johnson Drive for the ballplayer, Frawley Stadium for Wilmington Mayor Daniel S. Frawley, the Peterson Wildlife Refuge and the Jack Markell Trail for the governors, the DuPont Environmental Center for the company, Hare Pavilion for developer Michael Hare and the Sen. Margaret Rose Henry Bridge.
The $82 million bridge project opened in 2020, providing an easy connection between the west and east banks. RDC officials are planning for a second, pedestrian bridge to encourage more synergy between the western and eastern sectors. Its eastern end would be near a planned outdoor amphitheater.
They are also studying continuing the 1.3-mile Riverwalk onto the historic Seventh Street Peninsula, using a combination of easements, purchases and trades for the land. And they are looking at a Wilmington Loop that would connect the Markell Trail to the Northern Delaware Greenway, yielding an improved bicycle ride or jog from Brandywine Hundred through the Riverfront to Old New Castle.
Riverfront East’s first prominent construction is a $20 million Salvation Army complex, expected to be dedicated this fall. It includes an 40,000-square-foot adult rehabilitation center, with dormitory space for 86; a 31,000-square-foot building for donations and offices; and a 17,000-square-foot store.
Valenti is looking forward this year to a full season of public cruises and party boats on the river, Thursday evening concerts at Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park and monthly lunchtime concerts at Hare Pavilion. Riverfront restaurants, bars and entertainment venues should also draw more visitors, he said following two years of pandemic slowdowns.
Open, Inviting, and Exciting
In 1995, the Riverfront Development Corporation of Delaware was created to oversee the growth and restoration of the public and private land surrounding the Christina River. Formally home to shipbuilding and industrial centers, the land had become deserted and largely unusable. Thus, RDC began the process of rehabbing the landscape and working with local and regional developers to revitalize the area.
Riverfront Wilmington has become one of the area’s most vibrant and exciting destinations to live, play, and work. Once a largely abandoned shipyard, the riverfront is now teeming with residences, hotels, restaurants and indoor and outdoor attractions.
As we enter our 27th year — and look beyond — the Riverfront Development Corporation is thrilled to continue the expansion of the Riverfront area as we move to the east side of the river. We can’t wait to celebrate everything Riverfront Wilmington has to offer with you all year long!
Summer Concert Series
Our popular Summer Concert Series will once again return to Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park each Thursday evening from 7-8:30pm from July 8 through August 25.
These concerts are free of charge and feature a variety of popular local-and-regional acts celebrating various genres:
July 7 – Arnold Hurtt & The Funky Factory Band
(R&B, Pop, Soul, Gospel, Funk and Jazz)
July 14 – Swing That Cat
(Swing, Cabaret Jazz and Splash of Bourbon Street)
July 21- Blues Reincarnation Project
(Blues & Rock)
July 28 – Sean Reilly
(Vocalist in the Sinatra Style)
August 4 – Gerry Timlin
(Family Night with Irish Folk Music)
August 11 – Stacey LaChole & the BlacSoul Band
(R&B, Pop, Soul, Gospel, Funk and Jazz)
August 18 – Voodoo DeVille
(Blues, Boogie & Swing)
August 25 – Best Kept Soul
(R&B, Gospel, Jazz, Funk, Hip Hop and Rock)
Additionally, we are thrilled to bring back our Lunchtime Summer Concerts to Hare Pavilion on the Riverwalk, featuring a monthly performance from June-August, 12:15-1:15 p.m. along the Riverwalk.
Delaware Children’s Museum
Although reopen since June of 2021, the DCM is finally beginning to fully resemble the experience from before the pandemic. In addition to their weekly rotating STEM and art programming — as well as fun exhibits — the museum is bringing back their monthly indoor and outdoor special events for the summer months. The Summer Kick-Off will take place on Friday, June 17th, with indoor and outdoor activities, live music and more. On Friday, July 15th guests are invited to check out dogs and other service animals at the Dog Days of Summer Event. They will wrap up Summer with their End of Summer Bash on Friday, August 12th. All events are from 5-8pm and just $5 for admission. DelawareChildrensMuseum.org
Riverfront Mini Golf
One of the most popular summer attractions on the Riverfront is back in 2022! Open Wednesday-Sunday from 3-9pm, Riverwalk Mini Golf offers 18 holes of golf action on our newly renovated course, as well as bike and surrey rentals to tour the Riverwalk and soft serve ice cream. RiverwalkMiniGolf.com
Our friends at Coastal Boat Tours are back again for their first full season on the Christina. They have two ships, The Brandywine Tour Boat and Pau Hanna Tiki Boat. They offer tours of the river, cruising past the city and port and out to the Delaware River, as well as happy hour cruises, private charters and more. Details and booking information can be found at CoastalBoatCruises.com.
DuPont Environmental Education Center
The DuPont Environmental Education Center provides a 13,000 square foot facility along the 212-acre Peterson Wildlife Refuge, where guests can explore the marshes and look for various species of amphibians, birds and fish. They offer guided tours, weekly drop-in classes, and have easy access to the Jack A. Markell Bike Trail. Delawarenaturesociety.org/centers/dupont-environmental-education-center
Wilmington Blue Rocks
The Blue Rocks are celebrating their 30th season on the Riverfront this summer, with great baseball, family-friendly attractions, giveaways, fireworks, and more. BlueRocks.com
Restaurants and Beer Garden
Banks’ Seafood Kitchen & Raw Bar , Big Fish Grill, Ciro Food & Drink, Constitution Yards, Cosi, Del Pez, Docklands, Drop Squad Kitchen, Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, Riverfront Bakery, River Rock Kitchen, Starbucks , Taco Grande, The Juice Joint, Timothy’s on the Riverfront, Ubon Thai.
Open – Mon-Fri: 9am-6pm, Sat: 9am-4pm. Stop in and enjoy fresh produce, salads, sandwiches, pizza, sushi, Mexican, Thai cuisine, Peruvian Rotisserie, Soulfood and much more! Dine-in or carry out.
Riverfront Rewards and App
Each month, the RDC is presenting a different offer for our loyal guests. For simply spending money at your favorite Riverfront attractions, you can receive free passes, discounts, and other rotating offers. Check out RiverfrontWilm.com/rewards for each month’s offer.
Additionally, download our free Riverfront App for a virtual map of the riverfront, exclusive information and more.