By Alex Vuocolo
After decades of neglect, Rodney Square is getting a $6 million to $8 million facelift. Downtown Wilmington’s central square will soon see a fresh crop of trees and shrubs, new paving, more benches and tables and a lighted fountain.
The public park — a mostly bare, flat rectangle wedged between the city’s largest corporate and civic institutions — has served different roles since it was constructed in 1921. Most recently, it functioned as a de facto bus hub for DART until the state diverted routes away from the square in late 2017. The controversial move placed the historic park in limbo, as grassroots groups lobbied to reverse the decision.
This latest investment is a step toward redeveloping the square into an attractive, adaptable public space in the heart of Delaware’s largest city.
“When you look at your central square, if you let this crown jewel of your downtown deteriorate, what are you really saying about the rest of your city?” said Mayor Mike Purzycki, who proposed restoring the square during his first budget address in 2017?. “It becomes a measuring stick of everything else that you’re doing.”
Purzycki noted that the last round of investments, in the 1990s, were controlled mainly by DART and shifted the design of the park toward transportation, ignoring aesthetics. “There was nothing animating about the space,” he said. “I think there were too many transportation dollars in there.”
Both Purzycki and Gov. John Carney, who has committed state money to the project, have said that an improved Rodney Square could help drive people to move, work or locate their business in the city.
“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,” said Carney.
For Purzycki — who before becoming mayor was best known for helping beautify the Wilmington Riverfront
— places like Rodney Square have an important symbolic value when it comes to attracting new business.
“I start with the premise that people are attracted to pretty places. That’s kind of a marketing 101 strategy for me,” Purzycki said. “If you can create a central square where people feel at a visceral level this is an attractive place, you’re halfway to making a deal.”
Even advocates for bringing buses to Rodney Square support the basic premise that beautifying the park is
good for Wilmington.
“I think this is a positive step for Wilmington to restore the vitality of downtown,” said John Flaherty, lead organizer for the Coalition to Return Bus Service to Rodney Square. “But I want to see it opened up to everyone, not just people who work in the big buildings.”
He maintains that Rodney Square can accommodate both transit users and members of the community. “We’re hoping that public transportation will become part and parcel of the revitalization, not segregated away,” he said.
Purzycki, for his part, does not see a future where buses return to Rodney Square. “I think most people, frankly, are happy to see that the square is not overrun with people getting on and off of buses,” he said. “It’s just a much friendlier place to be here.”
State and local government will foot most of the bill, with a portion coming from nearby businesses, including Bank of America, Chemours, M&T Bank, Wilmington Library, Young, Conaway, Stargatt & Taylor law firm, Richards, Layton & Finger law firm and the Buccini/Pollin Group.
The Rodney Square Conservancy, an interest group dominated by businesses located around the square, will assist with fundraising and collaborate with the city through the renovation process.
The first phase of construction is estimated to cost $4 million and finish up in 2020. Two landscape architectural firms — the Wilmington-based Robinson, Anderson, Summers Inc., and the international firm OLIN — will complete the revitalization study.