Remaking the Wilmington skyline [video]

The Westin Hotel on the Riverfront is the latest example of how the Buccini Pollin Group is remaking the look and feel of Wilmington.

The Westin’s grand opening ceremony on Monday marked an important milestone for development in Wilmington: It’s the first new hotel in the city in decades. In addition, the structure serves as a sign of the Buccini Pollin Group’s footprint in Delaware’s largest city.

Over the past decade and a half, no developer has been as active as BPG in developing office, residential, retail and entertainment venues. A preeminent example is the Queen Theater, a concert venue on Market Street that serves as a major attraction in downtown Wilmington.

“It will bring a few hundred thousand people downtown that otherwise weren’t [coming to Wilmington],” said Chris Buccini, BPG co-president. Along with brother Rob and business partner Dave Pollin, Buccini has led BPG in developing millions of dollars worth of projects in Wilmington.

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Along with the millions of dollars in investment, Buccini said that the city is experiencing other benefits as well.

“Between Penn Cinema and now the Queen Theater, [there] will be close to a million more people coming nights and weekends that three years ago didn’t come.”

Living downtown once again

BPG’s efforts in the heart of downtown Wilmington began with a residential project at the Delaware Trust Building along Rodney Square.

In 2002, the company announced plans to overhaul the building, which was vacant for years after being damaged in a fire. Although some doubted that the site would draw tenants, those critics were proved wrong when hundreds of new residents moved downtown into homes developed by BPG.

“We’ve created 1,000 units,” Buccini said, noting that as many as 1,800 new residents are living downtown. “The apartments are between 95 and 100 percent occupied. If you’re looking for an apartment on Market Street right now, I don’t know if there is one available.”

Connecting downtown to the Riverfront

For BPG, boosting the numbers of residents in downtown Wilmington was the cornerstone in revitalizing the city. Now, the company’s residential success there is being mirrored along the Riverfront, where approximately 5,000 workers are employed and more than 1,200 residents live.

The company’s next focus is expanding the Market Street spine that connects downtown and the Riverfront. One of the first steps in that effort is the Midtown Parking Garage at the intersection of 9th and Shipley streets. It is currently undergoing demolition.

“The garage is something that we spoke with the previous owner for about four years in trying to purchase,” Rob Buccini said. “We think with our project, it will be much more pedestrian-friendly. It will be a $50 to 60 million mixed-use project that will have parking, residential and retail.”

Spurring the competition

While there are a handful of other developers in Wilmington, BPG is far and away the top dog.

“You’d think that other people would be following along, and it’s surprising that it hasn’t happened yet,” Rob said.

As part of the effort to secure more private investment in Delaware’s cities, Gov. Jack Markell proposed a $7 million plan to create Downtown Development Districts. Markell described his idea for the districts in January’s State of the State Address.

“A small number of designated areas in our cities … will qualify for development incentives and a host of other benefits in housing and transportation,” Markell said. “Builders looking to make investments in these districts would receive grants for a percentage of their investment.”

According to Andy Lippstone, chief legal counsel for Markell, the plan is based on a similar program successful in Virginia. Lippstone said that for every dollar invested in state money, more than $20 came back in private investment.

The goal is not just for economic development, but for community development as well. Along with commercial ventures, projects funded by the development districts would include single- and multi-family housing units.

“This is not a magic bullet, but we believe it’s a great way to reorient development towards our cities,” Lippstone said.

The ‘aha moment’

While there is no guarantee that Wilmington would be declared a Downtown Development District under the governor’s plan, it is highly likely. The plan still needs to be approved by state lawmakers.

If approved, a cabinet committee on state planning issues would decide the locations of the development districts. The legislation requires the placement of at least one such district in each county before receiving a second.

The Delaware State Housing Authority would then decide which projects receive the grant funding. While regulations that determine the distribution of funds have yet to be written, Lippstone believes that the money will be distributed as a rebate program following the completion of construction projects.

With both public and private investment in Delaware’s downtowns, the Buccini brothers believe the future of Wilmington is bright.

“If we have 1,500 to 1,800 people living in our properties here in downtown, I think that’s when people will have that ‘aha moment,'” Rob Buccini said. “I think that’s in the next couple of years, and I think that people that complain that [in] Wilmington there’s nothing to do and the crime is horrible, I think those are the people that will be the most surprised when they come down here in 12 or 24 months.”

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