Since the mid-1990s, the western bank of the Christina River in Wilmington has been transformed from a polluted, industrial site with vacant lots and empty warehouses into a hotspot with a movie theatre, minor league baseball park, high-end apartments, and hip restaurants.
Now city and state officials hope to have similar success developing the eastern side of the Christina, which has been mainly stagnant and undeveloped as investment poured into the area on the opposite bank.
“I know that right now it may not look like much,” said Megan McGlinchey, executive director of the Riverfront Development Corporation, referring to an empty parking lot on the east side of the river. “But I promise that in a few years, this lot and everything you see around us will set Wilmington apart with its vibrant, sustainable spaces, economic opportunities, and marriage of unique destination experiences with historic charm.”
Dubbed “Riverfront East,” RDC’s plans call for nearly two million square feet of office space, more than 350,000 square feet of retail, and more than 4,200 residential units when the project is finished. There’s also plans for a river walk to mirror the popular trail on the west side and a central green area for recreation.
“With each phase of this evolving project, we will breathe life back into spaces that have sat idle for far too long, developing their full potential as resources that elevate quality of life and opportunity for the region,” she said.
Mayor Mike Purzycki, who led the RDC for 20 years before being elected mayor in 2016, says while Riverfront East is mostly barren now, it’s got the same potential the west side of the river had 25 years ago.
“I think back over the years, and I can’t help but look across at how beautiful it is and think about all of what it took to get there,” Purzycki said. “When you walk around the Riverfront, every 10 feet is a story. You know, every 10 feet was a contaminated story.”
During WWII, the Riverfront was home to the Dravo Corporation who built hundreds of warships for the U.S. Navy. After they closed in 1965, the area declined, becoming what a 2007 University of Delaware report called a “typical brownfield, with chemical spills, cesspools, junkyards, and crumbling abandoned buildings.”
Just like on the west side, there is environmental damage that will need to be cleaned up before Riverfront East can move forward. RDC is now working with the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to get that cleanup done.
The first phase of the project includes construction of infrastructure needs like stormwater management, roadways, and parking areas. The river walk and central green space will also be built in phase one, which should be completed by the end of 2023. Phase one is expected to cost $30 million and create nearly 200 construction jobs.
The state Department of Transportation will spend $20 million to start new roadway construction through the area, as well as traffic-calming initiatives designed to make travel as safe as possible for pedestrians and bicyclists as well as drivers.
“From the moment we put the wheels in motion in 2016, every element in the planning and development of Riverfront East has focused on ensuring its opportunities and experiences are valuable and accessible to all,” McGlinchey said.
Ensuring accessibility for everyone in the city was an important element of the project for Wilmington Councilwoman Michelle Harlee, who represents the area.
“No one was uprooted to make this project happen, but thousands of people will now have new and exciting places for residential living,” she said. “Riverfront East will be a place for togetherness and quality time.”
Even though the pandemic canceled the season for the Wilmington Blue Rocks who play at the Riverfront, and COVID-19 restrictions limited restaurant business and movie-watching at the Riverfront IMAX theater, the area had a banner year in 2020.
Millions watched on TV as President Biden accepted his party’s nomination during the online Democratic National Convention hosted at the Chase Center on the Riverfront. And even more people around the world were introduced to the site in November, when Biden once again brought the international spotlight as the Riverfront hosted his election victory celebration.
State leaders are hoping to maximize that global exposure as they move forward with plans for Riverfront East in the coming years.
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