Over the last two years or so, Market Street’s long, often uncertain march of progress has taken on a sustained, robust gallop.
Anchored by two world-class arts venues – The Grand and The Queen – the central vein of Wilmington’s downtown is now percolating with restaurants, bars and coffee shops. Foot traffic is bustling; dinner reservation waiting lists are common; faces are fresh. Although gaps are certainly left to be filled, a corner for Wilmington’s vital main drag has undeniably been turned.
Yet while a humming main street is an essential element in the growth and success of any town, that alone does not a city make. Wilmington’s central business district is sprawling, and even on busy Market Street nights one could wander a few blocks off in either direction of to find dead zones and dark corners bereft of action or options, particularly for those who wanted to make downtown their home.
All that is beginning to change.
Arteries off downtown Wilmington’s main drag are starting to come alive again, sparked by investment into new apartments, markets and retail offerings. And a surprising thing has happened with the rebirth of streets like 9th and Shipley and Orange – a city is starting to rediscover its industrial heritage and architectural grace.
One major catalyst for downtown’s dynamism is The Residences at Mid-town Park off 9th Street. Two-hundred upscale apartments opened just last year and, according to developer Buccini/Pollin Group’s (BPG) ’s Sarah Lamb, nearly entirely rented at 92 percent occupancy. Importantly, one year in, the renewal rate is above 70 percent, which means tenants are choosing to stay downtown.
In the three years leading up to the opening of Mid-town Park, BPG added to its downtown apartment portfolio 200 new apartments to their MKT brand, including Market Street Village, with 76 new apartments further down Market in the heart of the LOMA district. The MKT apartments include both market-rate and affordable housing units.
This rapid residential infusion has in turn created both the need and opportunity for new retail, food and entertainment options beyond Market Street.
Downtown Wilmington’s first outdoor beer garden: Makers Alley
Among the most exciting of those new developments is Makers Alley, downtown’s first beer garden set to open in early September. Makers Alley will transform an entire block between Orange and Shipley, where BPG has removed one structure while restoring another, a vintage 1880s red brick classic that once housed a carpenter’s shop (thus the moniker, “Makers Alley”).
The demolition of the uninhabitable and abandoned building and subsequent construction/renovation have resulted in a space unlike anything Wilmington has seen before: a block-wide indoor/outdoor urban space, serviced by an old-school Airstream mobile kitchen and paired with views of the majestic Grand Opera House looming beyond.
“We wanted it to feel like an off-the-beaten-path kind of place. The design included removing two floors and creating a triple height volume for the space. It’s just flooded with light,” said Lamb, who wears several hats as BPG’s vice president of design and marketing.
The pace of construction at Makers Alley is brisk, with outdoor string lights now in place and the final touches to the brick and mortar and black framed windows complete.
Inside, a handsome three-sided bar is nearly ready for action. Above, customers will see about a dozen vintage Edison filament light bulbs hanging from the 30-foot ceiling, each dangling from brightly colored electrical cords in pink, yellow and orange.
The bar has a garage door that opens up to the yard, which will include a variety of seating options, cafe tables and even hammocks. Full meals and appetizers will be on the menu. The mobile kitchen and indoor bar will offer drinks and fare year round, and the yard will be equipped with outdoor heaters to extend the garden seating options. Management is still in the process of hiring a chef.
Workers from nearby businesses have been anxiously awaiting news about Makers Alley’s opening. For those coming by foot from points along Market Street, an open, attractive pedestrian avenue next to Chelsea Tavern – with illuminated string lights at night – leads to the entrance to the Residences at Mid-town Park, which is right next door to the new beer garden and bar.
Girard Craft & Cork and Faire Market & Cafe
Steps away from Makers Alley is Girard & Faire on 9th Street. Faire Market & Cafe – a gourmet grocery in front, at 216 9th Street – and Girard – a wine shop in back, on the tiny one-block stretch of West Girard – offers a tasty tandem for hungry shoppers and wine fans alike.
Girard carries 500 different wines from all of the major regions and has a large imported wine selection on their second floor, which overlooks the Faire Market. The new vino market plans to entice downtown workers to drop by for Friday wine tastings, to order their wine for events, and grab bottles to take home. Domestic and craft beer as well as spirits are also available.
Faire Market & Café offers a variety of healthy, grab and go lunches and warm, made to order breakfast options. Take home dinner options may soon be on the horizon. They also serve up a full menu of sandwiches and salads made to order, offer a fresh produce stand, and provide seating for 30, most of which is upstairs in an open area which overlooks the market.
The market is operating on a summer schedule for the next two weeks (7 am to 6 pm M-F) but will move to regular hours in September: 7 am to 8 pm M-F and 11 am to 5 pm on Saturday.
“Our anchor is really the kitchen,” said Faire operations manager Jim Still. “And executive chef Barret May is doing a really great job making fresh food daily from local, organic, sustainable kinds of ingredients.”
But they share a wall with the wine shop, and so they also have an extensive cheese selection and a few other homemade appetizers, including four kinds of hummus, a smooth, tasty guacamole, and potato and corn chips made right in the kitchen.
While they’ve stocked their pantry shelves with a few gourmet items like jams, spices, coffee, and Tate’s Cookies, they plan to add more staples like bread, milk and eggs. And they eventually expect to phase out the line of DiBruno Brothers charcuterie and pasta offerings, replacing many of those items with in-house made versions of their own.
“The soul of Faire is that we are foodies at heart,” said Rob Snowberger, 33, who co-owns the new enterprise with Chef Dan Sheridan. “We’re doing our best to stay on top of the food people want,” said Snowberger, who worked for BPG before starting his own development company and launching into the food business a few years ago.
The pair also owns Stitch House Brewery on Market Street. Sheridan came into national prominence earlier this summer when his other restaurant, Locale BBQ Post, was featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives with Guy Fieri.
Plans for a new restaurant, barbershop and fashion retailer
Girard is just the first of several ideas Snowberger has percolating for 9th Street. He and development partners Rob Herrera, owner of The Mill co-working space, and Steve Weathers, with BPGS Construction, are developing a secondary shopping corridor downtown which will include a new restaurant (where the old Bag & Baggage used to be) and barbershop. (Two other downtown barbershops closed within the last two years.)
And they’re hoping to open a fashion retail business run by students in the UD Horn Entrepreneurship fashion incubator program. And he shared that sidewalk improvements and historic street lighting are also in the works for the 9th Street corridor.
“It’s really fun to open up retail that is for everybody. We already have a wonderful women’s fashion shop on 9th Street right now called Bella Noir, run by a woman from Brooklyn, New York who is excited to run her business in Wilmington,” said Snowberger.
He added that timing is important; existing retailers could lag if other establishments on the block don’t open soon. “We have to move quickly. If now is not the time, then when is?” he said.
Snowberger, Weathers and Herrera also own ten fully occupied apartments on 9th Street – above Faire and Why Fly. They would like to see the downtown vibe to continue to grow with more new apartments and expanded retail offerings.
But they’re careful to note the importance of getting the balance right.
Residential life in downtown Wilmington: from 90 apartments two decades ago to 1,800 today
Major investors like BPG have been essential to downtown’s revitalization to be sure. But sustaining and extending that momentum requires the kind of organic economic ecosystem now taking root thanks to these entrepreneurs.
City economic development director Jeff Flynn said a collaborative ecosystem between the city, developers and entrepreneurs has been key in getting to the point where spontaneous, organic growth is happening such as on 9th Street. “In 1999, we had only 90 apartments in the central business district. Since 2002 we’ve added 1,800 apartment units in the central business district, and we have another 400 in the pipeline.”
More Downtown Developments ‘Beyond Market’
- DECO– The new food hall opened in April in the DuPont Building at 111 W. 10th and has been drawing crowds ever since. Check out TSD’s tour of their offerings from brick oven pizza by Bardea to pho noodles and chicken and waffles.
- Nemours Plaza Programming Tuesday, Thursday Friday (yoga, chess, mini markets, music and movies)
- MKT Place Gallery – An addition to the downtown monthly Art Loop, managed by Rodney Pratt Gallery
- Chelsea Plaza – Downtown plaza connecting Market Street with the new activity of Makers Alley
- Mid-Town Parking Garage – A new public parking option in the heart of downtown, in the Residences at Mid-Town Park building, entrance at Orange and Burton Place
- IM Coffee at 1105 Market (ok, this is technically on Market but it is off a plaza that is off Market) – the new downtown go-to for Third Wave Coffee (what is that?)