The Riverfront’s Growing Impact

The Riverfront’s Growing Impact

May 28, 2015
Out & About | Larry Nagengast

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.”’

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