By Peter Osborne
The City of Wilmington and partners that include the Wilmington Neighborhood Conservancy Land Bank are preparing to make a series of announcements over the next six to eight weeks that will ignite development on the west side of Wilmington and hopefully build the trust of residents that positive change is coming.
To Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki, one of the biggest signs of progress will come when work begins on the outside of the William “Hicks” Anderson Community Center at 501 N. Madison St. as part of a $4 million-plus upgrade to the facility.
“Right now, it looks like a big bunker, like a detention facility,” Purzycki said. “We’ve already removed the security gate, but we want it to be more welcoming, to remind kids that it’s a friendly place.”
The interior work at Hicks Anderson kicked off with a facelift of the gym. But it’s just a starting point for the West Center City area. Purzycki and officials with the Land Bank confirmed that four other projects in the area bordered by Fourth Street on the south, 10th Street on the north, Adams Street on the west, and West Street on the east should get under way this spring.
Purzycki said one of his major priorities after taking office in January 2017 was rebuilding the city, but quickly found he was spreading resources too thin. He wanted to focus on West Center City because of its proximity to downtown; the strength of its communities; and strong institutions like Hicks-Anderson and Sacred
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed by the speed with which we’ve moved,” said Purzycki, who came to city government after 20 years of leading the Riverfront Development Corp. “It’s been frustratingly slow, in part because of my expectations coming from the private sector of how fast we could move. We just didn’t have the resources and emotional energy beyond some cosmetic changes — new stop signs, fixing up Helen Chambers Park — and making some leadership changes” in the police department and at the Wilmington Housing Authority.
Enter the Land Bank.
Hit the ground running
Former Wilmington City Councilman Bill Freeborn was hired in mid-February as executive director of the Land Bank, a public/private partnership funded by the city, the private sector and by DSHA and foundation grants to redevelop blighted, vacant and abandoned homes in Wilmington.
He’s hit the ground running, postponing an interview so he could beat the deadline for completing grant applications for two of the upcoming projects.
“Delaware was one of the last states to have legislation to allow the use of land banks,” said Land Bank Chairman Rick Gessner, an investment-fund manager who also chairs Habitat for Humanity of New Castle County and the Ministry of Caring’s affordable housing initiative. “It’s a powerful tool to drive the resurgence of the community when you can have everyone working together.”
Gessner said bipartisan support is critical.
“This is the first time in my lifetime that the mayor, the county executive, the governor, and the entire congressional delegation live in Wilmington all wanting to find solutions to the problems we have,” he said.
“We want to bring back a sense of community to the area,” Freeborn said. “Between [Wilmington Police] Chief Robert Tracy’s success at reducing crime in West Center City and the mayor’s focus on quality-of-life issues, I believe we’re on the right track. Working closely with the local community, we are finding ways to make a difference.”
The Land Bank was established in late 2015 by the city and state to manage the city’s inventory of vacant homes and return them to productive use. The land bank can forgive any city and county debt on the property from accrued taxes, water bills, and fines, wiping the slate clean for interested buyers.
The Land Bank acquires properties through sheriff sales, licensing and inspection violations, gifts, and strategic acquisitions (e.g., buying additional properties to complete a site for commercial or residential development.
“It took some time to come to terms with [the Land Bank’s] role,” Purzycki said, explaining that buying properties and funding reconstruction will “change the emotional trajectory of this neighborhood. As I drive around West Center City today, I can already see huge changes.”
The challenge ahead is daunting: The city has 30,000 residential units (excluding the new downtown towers), split between owner-occupied and rentals. Of that number, about 2,000 fall into the “blighted” category.
The Land Bank recently launched an effort to better understand the footprint, using software from Boston-based Tolemi with information on every residential and business property. The database offers information about state and city ownership, building permits, housing-code enforcement, planning and zoning, business licenses, crime stats, fire-rescue data and census and utility data.
Using this data, the Land Bank identified 17 Land Bank-owned properties with persistent crime problems and met with Chief Tracy to discuss possible solutions.
In the short term, Freeborn says his organization and city officials need to focus on communicating with the community and addressing their concerns that the efforts will push longtime minority residents out of the area.
“Wilmington is a small city of 72,000 residents. The problems are fixable, but they’ve been building for decades,” Gessner said. “Funding, coordination, and a plan … when you put those three things together you should have a pretty powerful impact.
Purzycki agrees: “We’re back to collecting trash twice per week. Our police officers are out of their cars and getting to know everyone and that’s helped increase their clearance rate to 62 percent because of the increased trust. We’re seeing a lot more pride in these neighborhoods.”