Revitalizing Urban Riverfronts: Wilmington, DE

December 17, 2014 19 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Historically, Downtown Jacksonville's riverfront shares a lot in common with Wilmington's use of the Christina River. Over the last 15 years, Wilmington has successfully transformed its once decaying riverfront with a variety of mixed uses. Perhaps there's a lesson that may be applicable for downtown Jacksonville's future?

Historically, Jacksonville has a lot in common with Wilmington. Both downtown waterfronts were the home to major shipbuilding companies during World War II, churning out Liberty ships and over vessels for the American war effort. The construction of I-95 also ushered in decline for both East Coast communities, leading to failed urban renewal strategies in the 1950s and 1960s. To add to their list of similarities, each community turned to the financial sector as a way to move forward economically as their pre-WWII industrial sectors declined. Jacksonville focused on the insurance industry while Wilmington focused on the arrival of national banks in the wake of the 1981 Financial Center Development Act.

However, where we differ is in the revitalization of our former shipyard sites. For over a decade, Jacksonville's dreams have been pumped up and dashed with the start and failure of multiple redevelopment dreams of bringing life back to the 44-acre Jacksonville Shipyards on East Bay Street.

Image courtesy of the State of Delaware

For decades, Wilmington had a similar problem with its urban Christina River waterfront. Once a beehive of activity, by the 1980s, it had become cemetery for the rusting remains of the Dravo, Bethelehem Steel, and Pusey & Jones shipyards. Overall, the city had become a national poster child for crime, seeing its population drop from a high of 112,504 in 1940 to 70,195 by 1980.

Two major decisions led to the renewal of urban Wilmington: the 1981 Financial Center Development Act, which liberalized the laws governing banks operating within the state and similar laws in 1986, as well as the creation of the Riverfront Development Corporation.

The Riverfront Development Corporation was created by the Delaware General Assembly in 1995 and given the mission of transforming a containment industrial wasteland into a thriving destination. Primarily focusing on the former Dravo and Bethelehem Steel sites, the riverfront has become a widely recognized example of successful investment in sustainable urban redevelopment. For example, a large structure once utilized by Dravo as a landing craft assembly plant became Wilmington's convention center, the Chase Center in 1998. Six 50' whirley cranes were preserved, integrating local shipbuilding history into waterfront reclaimed for public use. Where industrial buildings had been demolished, a network of new streets have been created, offering smaller sites for office, residential, and commercial uses. Nearby, a new market offering fresh produce, meats, seafood, baked goods and more became the adaptive reuse of an abandoned furniture warehouse.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Featuring more than 800,000 square feet of office space for companies such as ING Direct, Barclay Bank, and Amtrak's east coast operations center, the riverfront is one of the most sought after locations in the region, taking advantage of its historic train station and intercity service to the East Coast's largest cities. Nearly all public investments in Riverfront Wilmington have already been paid back through increased tax revenues generated by development that has occurred since 1996. Today, Riverfront Wilmington generates $32 million annually in public revenue.

However, not everything has gone as planned for Wilmington's march to glory down the yellow brick road. Early in the redevelopment process, attempting to take advantage of the 1990's mall craze, the Shipyard Shops was constructed. Like the Jacksonville Landing, it opened to great fanfare with a number of national chains as tenants. Like the Landing, business quickly disintegrated, leaving the riverfront with a struggling dead mall on its hands by 2009.

Deciding to adjust to the region's demographics and Wilmington's idea centralized location, the complex has since been rebranded as a mixed-use center called the Shipyard Business Center. While there are restaurants such as Ubon Thai Cuisine, Molly's Ice Cream and Timothy's Irish Pub, spaces once occupied by retail are the homes of Planet Fitness, University of Phoenix, and the Wilmington Rowing Company.

Image courtesy of In Wilmington

There are several things Jacksonville can take from Wilmington's experience of revitalizing its former shipyards property over the last 15 years. These ideas include the breaking down super-blocks with a network of streets. The result is the creation of a number of smaller parcels that can be incrementally developed by different parties, dependent on what the market can actually support. This makes the community less reliant on a "sugar daddy" or hoping for a "one-trick pony" to turn things around.  

When it comes to public accessibility to the urban waterfront, a decision was made to publicly fund the necessary public access, as opposed to hoping a private developer would eventually come in and agree to set aside a little space as an afterthought.

Another important element of Riverfront Wilmington's revitalization is not to ignore or overlook the importance of transportation and connectivity. The riverfront's historic Wilmington Station (Joseph R. Biden Jr. Railroad Station) is an intercity passenger railroad stop with Amtrak Northeast Corridor, Amtrak intercity, and SEPTA regional rail service. This offers convenient connectivity to larger cities in the region, creating a stronger opportunity and market for infill residential and office development along the riverfront. The idea of connectivity is also much larger than transit and roadways. Market Street, Wilmington's "Main Street," ties the riverfront to the heart of downtown Wilmington. In recent years, it has been retrofitted, becoming a strong pedestrian and bicycle link for the city's revitalizing urban core.

Soon, Jacksonville will hear Shahid Kahn's and the Jacksonville Jaguar's vision for the Jacksonville Shipyards. When we do, the successful revitalization of Riverfront Wilmington should be in the back of our minds.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at Cover image courtesy of Wikipedia

For more information on the Jacksonville Shipyards site:

Jacksonville Shipyards

Sniffing Along The Riverfront

Jacksonville Shipyards Park

Next Page: Photographic Tour of Downtown Wilmington and Christina Riverfront

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