REACH Riverside set to start first housing section

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The highly anticipated REACH Riverside project appears ready to begin in earnest.

Contributor Larry Nagengast reports the project announced in late 2018 is set to start turning over dirt and making good on its promise of major revitalization in the northeast section of Wilmington.

Delaware Public Media’s Tom Byrne and contributor Larry Nagengast discuss progress in the REACH Riverside’s project in Wilmington.

Logan Herring believes in keeping promises, and this time it went down to the wire before it came through.

Just over two years ago, Herring, the executive director of the REACH Riverside redevelopment project, enthusiastically reported that residents of the struggling community in northeast Wilmington “can tell there’s a different energy,” and then he pledged that “nothing can compare to 2020, when we begin construction and people see shovels in the ground.”

At the time, Herring was thinking about the spring of 2020 … but few things have gone according to plan in this most unusual year.

“A monumental, pivotal moment. Not so much for us, as REACH Riverside, but for the community. They’ve been waiting a long, long time.” – REACH Riverside exec. director Logan Herring.

By the end of the month, however, site preparation will begin, marking the first visible steps in work on the first 74 townhouses in the planned 600-unit revitalized community.

It took longer than expected to reach the starting line but last week REACH Riverside, the Wilmington Housing Authority and Pennrose, the project’s Philadelphia-based developer, announced that they had finished securing financing for the first of the eight phases of the redevelopment, which encompasses an area bordered roughly by 23rd Street on the south, Todds Lane on the north, Claymont Street on the west and railroad tracks and industrial properties on the east.

It should take up to 18 months for the first phase to be completed – so those units should be ready for occupancy in the spring or early summer of 2022.

“We had a number of issues, but we’re grateful and excited to be getting started,” Herring says. Those issues included pandemic-related supply chain delays, management turnover at the WHA, and the delays that inevitably occur in financing the $20 million first phase of what is projected as a $250 million redevelopment.

“You know, when you’re closing on a home, you never get the day they first give you,” he said. “We went from spring to October, to December. We’re glad we got it over with.”

The 74 units, ranging in size from one to four bedrooms, should be completed in 18 months – by June 2022. They will be built toward the north end of the redevelopment area, a section bounded by 27th Street, Bowers Street, Todds Lane and Rosemont Avenue. In addition to the housing, the area will include a community room, a common green space with a raised garden, gazebo and tot lot. Plans call for 59 of the townhouses to be affordable units, available to tenants with incomes of up to 60 percent of Area Mean Income (AMI), with the other 15 designated as workforce housing units. Twelve of the units will be fully ADA-accessible and eight will be designed for residents with special needs.

Rents have not been determined, but Herring expects the rent for a two-bedroom workforce unit to be about $900 a month.

Current Riverside residents will have the first opportunity to rent the new units. As the redevelopment proceeds, existing units in Riverside, built about 70 years ago, will be demolished to make room for the new homes.

The second phase of development – 67 more townhouses – will start as the first phase nears completion, Herring said. Those homes would be built in an area bounded by 28th Street, Rosemont Avenue, Todds Lane and the railroad tracks. That construction is also likely to take another 18 months, Herring said.

In addition to building the townhouses, Pennrose will also be responsible for management and rentals, Herring said. Pennrose has signed an agreement with WHA for a long-term lease of the land now occupied by WHA-managed homes. Some of the acreage to be used for the new townhouses is owned by the Kingswood Community Center. Some of the townhouses to be built on Kingswood’s land during later construction phases will be sold at market rates, Herring says. Overall, the project’s goal is for about 20 percent of the units to be owner-occupied, he says.

‘WHA is pleased that this time our promise to provide affordable new housing is finally coming to fruition. Our residents deserve improved housing conditions and enhanced quality of life.” WHA Executive Director Thomas Harkless

The revitalization effort is using a model developed by Purpose Built Communities, a nonprofit based in Atlanta, Georgia that has helped guide major revitalization initiatives in 18 other cities. The organization takes a holistic approach to attack deeply rooted issues such as intergenerational poverty, unsafe environments, high crime and failing schools and helps vulnerable neighborhoods develop sustainable solutions that include mixed-income housing, community wellness programs and a cradle-to-college education pipeline.

In addition to the new housing, components of the REACH Riverside plan include building a new Kingswood Community Center, the area’s social services hub; possible expansion of the Eastside Charter School to include high school grades; a community health and wellness initiative involving the University of Delaware, Delaware State University and ChristianaCare; the Warehouse, an education and recreation center for teens that opened earlier this year; and the strengthening of small businesses along Northeast Boulevard.

REACH Riverside – the acronym stands for Redevelopment, Education and Community Health – is receiving free technical support and consulting services for the entire project through Purpose Built Communities. That support, Herring said, has included assistance in identifying a developer for the project, preparing contracts, strategic planning, marketing and fundraising.

Data based primarily on the 2010 census and posted on the city of Wilmington’s website points to some of the challenges facing the Riverside community. In Riverside, unemployment among residents 18 and over was nearly 24 percent, more than double the city figure of 10.8 percent. Median household income was $23,560 in Riverside, less than two-thirds the citywide median of $38,386. While 21 percent of Wilmington residents over 18 had not finished high school, the figure in Riverside was 38 percent.

Because of the significant low-income population in the community, Herring says that residents of the new townhouses will have the opportunity to enroll in a program called EMPOWER, an acronym for Economic Mobility Places Ownership Within Everyone’s Reach. REACH Riverside is investing $1 million a year for three years – money it has received in grants from government, banking and philanthropic donors – in the program.

Partners in EMPOWER, including representatives of Delaware State University, ChristianaCare and financial and social services organizations, will provide an array of services that would include: employment coaching, tutoring, job matching and placement, financial coaching, health screenings, health improvement plans and family support services like emergency food and clothing, childcare and mental health counseling.

As the housing construction moves forward, a top priority for the project will be development of the new Kingswood Community Center building, Herring said. That project carries a price tag of about $30 million, and a three-year fundraising drive will be announced next year, as Kingswood celebrates its 75th anniversary, he said.

The new community center would be constructed to the northeast of the current building, and would be completed in phases, starting with a new Early Learning Academy. The existing building would be demolished to make way for housing in the project’s sixth phase. The new building would provide a new home for the Jimmy Jenkins Senior Center and serve as a gathering place for meetings, social events and other community activities. Providers of health and social services might also locate offices in the building.

The first construction phase is being financed through a combination of sources, including low-income-housing tax credits from the Delaware State Housing Authority. Cinnaire, a Chicago-based community development financial institution, has purchased the tax credits, valued at $9.8 million, and has also provided a $5 million investment and a predevelopment loan of more than $400,000 for the project. Other investors include the WHA, New Castle County, the City of Wilmington and M&T Bank.

“WHA is pleased that this time our promise to provide affordable new housing is finally coming to fruition,” said WHA Executive Director Thomas Harkless. “Our residents deserve improved housing conditions and enhanced quality of life.”

Securing the financing and starting construction is “a monumental, pivotal moment,” Herring said. “Not so much for us, as REACH Riverside, but for the community. They’ve been waiting a long, long time.”

Riverside Relief Fund update:

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, it put many things on hold – including progress in securing financing for the Riverside redevelopment in northeast Wilmington – but it didn’t stop REACH Riverside, the redevelopment’s coordinator, from trying to meet the needs of the community’s struggling residents.

Contributor Larry Nagengast updates the work done by REACH Riverside’s COVID Relief Fund.

In April, REACH Riverside outlined a plan to create a relief fund, financed primarily by the redevelopment’s individual and business supporters, to provide short-term grants to residents of Wilmington Housing Authority units in the area.

The relief fund began making $250 monthly grants to households in May, with the money loaded onto debit cards issued through TD Bank. The goal, REACH Riverside Executive Director Logan Herring said in the spring, was to “stand in the gap,” to provide cash to help households purchase items like diapers, prescription medications, cleaning products and clothing that they could not buy using other government benefits.

The distributions lasted five months, through September, with 244 families receiving a total of $285,000, REACH Riverside reports. Families enrolled from the start of the program would have received a maximum of $1,250.

The relief fund supported the Riverside community in several other ways, including: distribution of more than 400 Chromebook laptop computers, primarily to Kingswood Early Learning Academy families and Riverside residents; handing out more than 1,000 facemasks, distributing household supplies to more than 150 families and providing more than 15,000 meals through a partnership with a local restaurant and other community organizations. Through the Urban Bike Project, REACH Riverside also provided 20 bicycles to households with transportation needs.

In addition, through Nov. 30, 38 residents had signed up for a state Department of Labor workforce training program and 27 others had enrolled to study for their GED diplomas.

ChristianaCare’s COVID-19 screening service at the Kingswood Community Center conducted 657 screenings and 602 tests, with 80 individuals testing positive.

Also, during the summer and fall, Herring said, 72 households visited Kingswood to fill out Census forms, raising the census participation rate for the area from 60 percent to 84 percent. 

                                                                                              

                                        

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