City officials donning hard hats performed a ceremonial first dig today in the heart of Wilmington’s main public square — Rodney Square Park, breaking ground on a multimillion-dollar, multi-year reconstruction project.
Laid out nearly 100 years ago, Rodney Square will undergo a major aesthetic and infrastructure overhaul, including new masonry and paving, improved irrigation systems, upgraded lights as well as new planters, benches, tables and trash and recycling bins.
Two of the most visible changes to the park will be full, unobstructed views from the Caesar Rodney statue all the way to King Street, plus a new lighted splash fountain that will be visible from all four sides of the park.
A large utility structure currently sits on the eastern edge of the park, blocking a significant portion of the view from King Street. In this first phase of construction, that structure will be removed, and two new small cast stone utility buildings will be erected providing new electric and water service to the park.
The redesign will allow for 5,000 additional feet of grassy space, allowing large events like the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival to enjoy more room to spread out or add seating.
“The fountain will be a very interactive space, bringing life to this side of the square for all the people in the city to be able to use it,” said Bill Lenihan, a member of the executive committee of the Rodney Square Conservancy.
A group of Wilmington residents and local businesses formed the Rodney Square Conservancy in 2016 with the twin goals of preserving its historic legacy and spearheading a restoration and improvement project. The 17-member board now drives all critical decisions for the Rodney Square Works project.
Phase II will incorporate additional landscape improvements beyond the park’s borders. Those include curb and sidewalk enhancements on all four sides and a more seamless integration of the Wilmington Public Library. Because 10th and 11th Streets are quite steep, architects plan to plateau parts of the grade, bringing in new landscaping at multiple levels and a mix or larger trees and smaller plantings with lots of color. The library also has plans to bring new programming into the park.
The $6 to $8 million project will be funded by a combination of public and private funds coming from the state ($1.5 million), city ($1.8 million) and companies including Bank of America, Chemours, M&T Bank, the law firm of Young, Conaway, Stargatt and Taylor, the law firm of Richards, Layton and Finger and the Buccini/Pollin Group.
Board members of the Rodney Square Conservancy, an assembly of Wilmington business, nonprofit and arts leaders, also contributed.
Delaware Governor John Carney, Mayor Mike Purzycki, Council President Hanifa Shabazz, Rodney Square Conservancy Chair Samira (Sam) Aird and State Representative Stephanie T. Bolden participated in the groundbreaking today.
The mayor said that the city’s largest public square is suffering from deterioration because of deferred maintenance and needs a major aesthetic and infrastructure overhaul. This first phase of the park renovation project is expected to be completed early next year.
“This grand public square will not only be restored to its original glory but will be improved in a way so that it’s upkeep will be more manageable and economical. When this is completed, the square will be more beautiful, attractive and useful,” said Mayor Purzycki.
Governor Carney said the success of the city’s central park is linked directly to the success of the state. “This is an investment in the center of Wilmington to revitalize Rodney Square, attract new jobs and business to our city, and give all Wilmington families more options to get outside and enjoy everything our city has to offer.”
The Rodney Square Conservancy has retained the services of two landscape architectural firms — Robinson Anderson Summers, Inc., and OLIN — to complete a revitalization study of Rodney Square. Fundraising by the Conservancy will continue in order to support the next phase of the project.
Rodney Square was one of the first examples of the City Beautiful Movement of the early 20th century, which espoused improving the social order of the day by introducing more beauty into the urban landscape. In 2011, Rodney Square, the Caesar Rodney equestrian statue, and the Nemours Building were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.