After two years of preparation and delays, Struever Brothers Eccles and Rouse, one of Baltimore's most prolific remodelers of underused urban properties, is about to start work on another collection of old and abandoned buildings in a slumping city block.
The block is in Wilmington, Del., part of a multiyear, $60 million plan to revive the oldest part of that city.
The designs are nearing completion, and Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner is expected to sign today a bill to provide state tax credits for recycling the historic buildings, some of which date to the 1770s.
"That is a very important piece; that makes it possible," said Katherine A. Hearn, development director at Struever Bros., who said construction would start on the first of six blocks in the spring and take 12 months.
About $2 million in state historic tax credits fill a financing gap between what Struever Bros. raised and what the project will cost. The company also will receive federal historic tax credits of about $2.3 million.
The company has lined up investors to finance the $21 million first phase of the project, the 200 block of N. Market St.
In exchange, the investors get to apply the tax credits to their income taxes.
Struever Bros., which will act as developer and contractor, expects to build 83 apartments and 33,000 square feet of retail space in 22 existing buildings.
The buildings are in an area designated by the City Council as Ships Tavern District, named for a Revolutionary War tavern. Formerly known as Lower Market Street, it borders the Christina River in the southern part of the city.
C. William Struever, president of Struever Bros., said the Ships Tavern District offers one of the last chances at rehabilitation in Wilmington, which has lost many of its old buildings. He called the buildings "a delightful and complicated ensemble."
Struever Bros. has not committed to develop the district beyond the first block.
The new state law allows as much as $3 million in annual tax credits to encourage developers like Struever Bros. to rehabilitate old buildings, rejuvenate older neighborhoods and slow suburban sprawl, said Gregory B. Patterson, director of communications for the governor's office. The legislation had been a priority for Minner as lieutenant governor in the last administration.
"This is one tool we now have to encourage people to go back in and redevelop and rejuvenate areas rather than going into a field," Patterson said.
Struever Bros. is the first to take advantage of the credits in Delaware. Maryland has a similar program.
The Baltimore developer was chosen by Wilmington Renaissance Development Corp., the nonprofit economic development group that has been spearheading the project. The group has been purchasing the properties, which are largely empty and rotting. That step is mostly done.
And, after two years, design work is also nearing completion, Hearn said. That process was delayed a year when federal authorities in charge of tax credits told Struever Bros. that its initial plan did not save enough of the original buildings.
There is little foot traffic now in the area, but officials say a large courthouse under construction two blocks away will boost demand for dining, shopping and residences.
William C. Wyer, Wilmington Renaissance Development Corp.'s managing director, said the district will have a "historic importance and new funkiness" that is appealing to young urban professionals.
He acknowledges that the renaissance of an area abandoned for almost 50 years is "certainly not an easy project."