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Blocking out decay; Baltimore's Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse Inc. will redeevelop a deteriorating Wilmington, Del., block with buildings that date to the 1770s. Wilmington sees the project as the first step in recapturing its proud past.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Its 14 buildings bear all the trappings of decay: missing panes of glass, chipped paint, plywood-covered storefronts, padlocked doors and aging, faded brick.

Beyond the ramshackle structures, a thin swath of uneven, cracked concrete serves as a poor substitute for a sidewalk.

The only signs of life are a small barbershop, a cigarette outlet and an antique and jewelry repair store with a homemade sign in the window soliciting "old guns and swords regardless of condition."

The 200 block of N. Market St. in downtown Wilmington hardly seems a promising candidate for revival. With buildings dating to the 1770s, it is the linchpin in an ambitious program to rejuvenate the oldest section of the Delaware city.

While many real estate developers would pass on a project requiring creative financing, specialized construction, leasing and other skills, North Market Street is the kind of project Baltimore's Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse Inc. strives to find.

"Our real business is doing headache projects, projects with special circumstances or challenges that most people don't want to deal with," said Bill Struever, the company's president. "There aren't a whole lot of firms across the country that can do the scope and size projects we can, and have the spiritual drive and the skills to bring these deals together."

The 200 block of N. Market St. is the first phase of a project that could encompass a six-square-block area. Beginning this summer, Struever will turn the block's three- and four-story buildings into 75 apartments and 18 restaurants and other shops.

The Wilmington Renaissance Development Corp. (WRDC), a privately funded economic development group that is spearheading the project, unanimously selected Struever because the group said the Baltimore company understands the subtleties of rehabilitating historic projects and the complexities of financing them.

"This is the oldest part of the city, and the first that was abandoned," said William C. Wyer, WRDC's managing director. "It's just not very welcoming right now. It looks like an abandoned no-fly zone."

"It would be very simple and cheaper to go in and tear these buildings down," Wyer added, "but if we did that, we would lose part of the city's character."

Struever's background seems ideal for a project like North Market Street. The firm, started almost 25 years ago to renovate homes in Baltimore's neighborhoods, is best known for turning abandoned and nettlesome factories into shops, offices or residences.

American Can Co.

Its most recently completed project, Baltimore's American Can Co., is a $17 million conversion of the long vacant five-building Can Co. complex in Canton into shops and offices housing Bibelot bookstore, Chesapeake Wine Co., Austin Grill, Dap Inc. and others.

The WRDC was attracted by the Can Co.'s financing. As with other hard-to-finance projects, Struever tapped into lenders and investors Fannie Mae, Riggs Bank, NationsBank Corp. and the late James W. Rouse's Enterprise Social Investment Corp.

The North Market Street renovation is likely to be financed in much the same way, with historic and other tax credits, Community Reinvestment Act loans from area banks, traditional bank loans and community-based venture capital.

WRDC officials hope the $18 million renovation of North Market Street -- to be called the Ship's Tavern District after an 18th-century pub -- will generate other redevelopment and encourage people to move downtown.

Attracting residents

Bringing new residents to downtown is one of the WRDC's priorities. While Wilmington businesses have created 8,000 jobs in the past five years, fewer than 200 people live downtown in this city of 75,000.

To remedy that, Wyer and the WRDC are targeting people 25 years old and under, mostly recent graduates from nearby colleges -- the Delaware College of Art and Design, the University of Delaware, Springfield College, Delaware State University, and an extension of Drexel University.

Wyer is also looking to credit-card behemoths MBNA Corp. and First USA Bank -- whose gleaming headquarters overshadow the squalor of the 200 block of N. Market St. -- to provide tenants able to afford the housing that will have monthly rents between $600 and $950.

"The credit-card banks certainly have made a lot of this possible," Wyer said. "The demographics of who they hire and the incomes they pay are perfect for this type of project."

'Focus on Main Street'

Other signs of vitality also give Wyer and other civic leaders hope that North Market Street may again thrive.

In addition to creating a new community and technical college that has 3,000 students and almost no dormitories or housing nearby, Wilmington has added a new arts center and plans to begin construction next month of a $120 million courthouse.

The New Castle County Court House will contain Delaware's courts under one roof -- Delaware's courts handle cases involving many of the nation's largest companies because they are incorporated there -- and will employ 1,500 workers less than four blocks from the Ship's Tavern District when it's completed in four years.

The WRDC and Struever contend that the vast number of workers in downtown Wilmington will help draw necessary infrastructure that will make the downtown attractive.

"We're finding that there are a lot of retailers nationally that now want to be in downtowns because of the critical mass there," said Katherine A. Hearn, a Struever development director who worked on the Can Co. project. "They are beginning again to focus on Main Street, urban America."

Wyer realizes that the fight will be tough, and that it is bigger than saving North Market Street. At stake is whether Wilmington will be able to stem the decay that has eroded the city since World War II.

If the overall $70 million revitalization program for the six-square-block area works, Wyer predicts, Wilmington could become a "24-hour city," where people live, work, shop and are entertained without having to get into their cars.

To aid that plan, the WRDC is considering reintroducing a steel-rail trolley to connect Wilmington's waterfront to the heart of downtown, reminiscent of one that ran in the 1930s. If the Federal Transportation Administration endorses and funds the trolley, it could be running by 2002.

Wearing two hats

For Struever, the stakes are also high. The Wilmington project marks the first time the company has worked as both developer and co-general contractor outside the state, and the first time it has taken on a city block.

Under a tentative plan, the WRDC would obtain options to purchase 10 buildings the city does not own. The WRDC would then flip the options to Struever, who would purchase the buildings and assume any risk -- or reward -- for the project.

Although WRDC officials believe the North Market Street project carries a degree of risk, Struever is confident it can improve the block and be an integral part of the overall redevelopment.

"We're pretty good about picking projects that we can do and complete and make work over the long term," Struever said.

Struever's Wilmington work is part of a larger scheme to diversify its revenue base outside Baltimore, a goal it set three years ago. By the end of this year, the firm expects to derive 35 percent of its revenue from outside the city. Eventually, it hopes to increase that figure to 50 percent. Last year, Struever posted about $85 million in revenue.

Well-placed connections

Like much of the work Struever has done in Baltimore, the firm obtained its Wilmington job thanks in part to some well-placed contacts. In the past, Struever has been criticized by competitors who claim the company gets work because of its close relationship with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

When the job of city housing chief opened several years ago, the mayor tapped former Struever partner Daniel P. Henson III to serve as head of Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development.

In the case of Wilmington, Struever got its proverbial foot in the door thanks to its ties with Enterprise. Struever partner Ted Rouse is the son of James W. Rouse, who created the Enterprise Foundation and its affiliates after retiring from the Rouse Co. in 1979.

"We suggested Struever to the Wilmington folks because they've been one of our best partners over the years," said David Prout, an Enterprise Social Investment Corp. fund manager who works extensively in Delaware. "In part, that's due to the relationship between Ted and his father. The relationship carries over, and we have similar goals."

Enterprise's association with Struever's Wilmington deal won't end there. Prout said the nonprofit social investment corporation has committed to invest equity in the project in exchange for historic tax credits.

'From good to bad'

Along North Market Street, those anxious to see the 200 block refurbished don't care how it's done, just that it is done.

"I've seen this city go from good to bad," said Fay Coonin, who has run the antique and jewelry repair store on North Market Street for almost four decades with her husband, Jack. "It can only go up."

WRDC officials are negotiating to buy the Coonins' building, adorned with posters of famous faces ranging from President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy to Miss Piggy. The Coonins plan to retire when the store closes.

Before renovation work can begin this summer as planned, the WRDC will have to acquire properties and relocate the five families that live above the shops.

Second phase possible

Struever is talking with the WRDC about ideas for the second phase of the North Market Street renovation. The focus likely would be on the 300 block of N. Market St., where a vacant, weathered Farmers Bank building serves as a monument to Wilmington's proud past and shabby present.

At this juncture, Wyer says the second phase is likely to include a blues-themed nightclub, which its proprietor says would draw an average of 1,000 customers a night.

"It's a high-risk project, no doubt," Wyer said. "It's not by any means a slam dunk. But we think now that the stars are aligned and the time is right."

Pub Date: 1/31/99

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