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Wilmington: How We Got Here and Where We're Going

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Kevin McGonegal
Kevin McGonegal worked in the Maloney, McLaughlin and Frawley Administrations. Today he is vice president of Bellevue Realty Commercial Division in Wilmington.

Part VIII: Glimpses of the Future
This economic development retrospective covering the years 1945 to 1984 will be serialized as eight parts, running on alternate days on Town Square Delaware. 

As the vacant land between the Brandywine and Christina began to fill up with new office buildings, a few developers and city officials began to look at the riverfronts themselves. From colonial times the riverfronts were industrial centers, with milling operations on the swift-moving Brandywine and shipbuilding ventures on the tidal Christina. These areas had suffered though long periods of decline and, particularly along the Christina, were now industrial wastelands. The Christina was almost unnavigable, with sunken ships dotting the riverscape including the former Wilson Line ferry, the State of Pennsylvania, sitting in the mud along South Justison Street.

With the advent of the Brandywine Gateway development, the Brandywine got the first look by adventuresome entrepreneurs. Dick Chalfant spearheaded a residential condo development on the Brandywine just over the Market Street Bridge from downtown, and the Waterworks restaurant sprouted from a part of the City’s Water Department buildings along East 16th Street across the Creek from the Chalfant development. But developable sites were few along the Brandywine, so the visionaries began to consider the expanses of industrial land along the Christina. Delaware transplant Sam Beard spearheaded a group calling itself Wilmington Waterways to promote the riverfronts, and City Council created waterfront zoning categories in 1981, long before any serious consideration was given to locating something there.

In 1984 Wilmington’s Planning Department issued a Christina River Gateway Action Plan that envisioned major retail and residential development along the banks of the Christina, an area more familiar with abandoned buildings and junked cars. The plan called for a public/private partnership to build a riverwalk, an intermodal terminal for buses, a parking garage, 200 units of market-rate condominiums and 52 townhouse and duplex units, plus 148 units in mid-rise buildings. Plans also called for a 200-250 room high quality hotel, and a multi-use Christina Center, to include music facilities, a small theater, retail and offices all grouped around a glass-covered atrium. The project was to be clustered around South Orange to South Walnut Streets on either side of the Christina, and would include a private harbor carved into the south bank of the River to accommodate residents’ yachts. On the north side of the River next to the Pennsylvania Railroad Building would be a “special waterfront development parcel” that could be developed into an office building, a specialty retail center or a combination of the two.

The immediate need was for state funding for sheet piling to shore up the north bank of the Christina, something much more pedestrian than a yacht basin. Many viewed these plans as wildly optimistic considering the existing industrial devastation, but a vision of what could be had been put forward. Yet a riverwalk, riverfront condos, a convention center and, now a hotel and movie theater, were indeed in the future for the Christina waterfront.

The DuPont Company

Not all the omens were positive in these years. Citibank optioned a large chunk of the vacant land between the ALICO Building and 4th Street in 1982 for their new Delaware operation, but they eventually decided to locate at New Castle Corporate Commons instead. New Class A office buildings such as the Chase Building on Delaware Avenue were self-contained structures. With parking garages underneath and cafeterias in the building, there was no need for employees to go out to shop or eat. Businesses on the Market Street Mall and elsewhere dependent on the lunch-time crowd would suffer.

Most ominous though, were the stirrings of Wilmington’s long-time patron and anchor corporate citizen, the DuPont Company. Rumors had circulated after DuPont completed the Brandywine Building that it was through with building downtown, though no official announcement had been made. There had been a long-standing, tacit understanding within the DuPont Company that they would always maintain their presence in the City of Wilmington, that management would always be downtown. As the 1980’s began though, that understanding began to fray.

Wilmington officials heard the rumors even while the Hercules deal was in process that significant numbers of DuPont employees were being relocated out of Wilmington. Subsequently it was confirmed that the company was sending more employees to its Chestnut Run and Barley Mill Plaza centers outside city limits. Whether Wilmington’s recent successes gave DuPont an excuse for reducing its presence in Wilmington, or just that corporate fiscal policy began to overrule long held traditions, DuPont was definitely reducing its footprint downtown.

Over the next 20 years what was happening to DuPont in downtown Wilmington was just a part of the corporate upheaval that enveloped DuPont worldwide. The company was shrinking and much of the reduction in staff would directly affect their need for office space downtown. Their presence downtown was so great that its reduction would offset the economic development successes of bringing new bank jobs to Wilmington. High-paying management jobs at DuPont were being replaced by low-paying back office bank jobs, which translated into tax losses for Wilmington. Over the years as this played out fewer DuPont jobs would mean the need for fewer DuPont office buildings, which would in turn create a new challenge and new opportunity for development in the future.

Aerial shot of Wilmington, circa 2002
(Courtesy of the City of Wilmington)

Aerial shot of Wilmington, circa 1970
(Courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Look Back

Bill McLaughlin left the mayoralty at the end of 1984, hailed as a champion of economic development and savior of Wilmington. In fact, McLaughlin did not solve Wilmington’s problems, which were far from over. Economic development would need to be an ongoing priority for future administrations just to keep Wilmington’s head above water. But there was a way forward and a reason to think Wilmington would survive.

While there were many successes, it is amazing how few of the corporate names so prominent then have survived to the present. Hercules, Wilmington Trust, ALICO and Radisson are gone. Banks such as Chemical Bank and Manufacturer’s Hanover have been merged or bought. The question is: If successes turn out to be impermanent or even fleeting, are they still successes? That is an issue when you view the actions of 40 years ago with 21st century hindsight. The Wilmington of that era was desperate for any sign of life and officials were eager to try anything to raise hopes. The Market Street Mall is gone now, but perhaps the vitality it lent to downtown for a few years gave companies such as Hercules the confidence to make their commitments when they did. And Hercules perhaps gave confidence to Chase Manhattan to commit to Wilmington, and so on. Successes can build upon one another, even if individually they pass from the scene. The buildings built in that era remain and produce tax revenue and development opportunity for a continually revenue-starved city government.

Until the end of his mayoralty Bill McLaughlin kept on his back credenza a pelota and cesta presented to him by one of the competing Jai Alai ventures early in his first term. In spite of all the development successes, the souvenir he decided to keep was of a singular failure. Knowing his self-deprecating sense of humor it could have just been an inside joke on himself. Or maybe it was a reminder that sometimes the best deal is the one that didn’t happen.

Acknowledgements:
Carol Hoffecker’s excellent book, Corporate Capital Wilmington in the Twentieth Century (1983) gave me a great source for the early post WWII years. I would also like to thank the following individuals who contributed their time, assistance and recollections: Peter Besecker, Joe DiPinto, Elliott Golinkoff, Brian Murphy, Dick Pryor, Fred Sears, Dave Singleton and Stan Soja.

Stay tuned for the second part of Kevin McGonegal’s history of economic development in Wilmington, including the riverfront development, the credit card boom and the coming (and going) of MBNA.

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