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.

January 31, 1999|By Kevin L. McQuaid | Kevin L. McQuaid,SUN STAFF

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.

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