WILMINGTON – The city’s Creative District will receive a boost over the next 18 months with the addition of affordable housing and art studios to the market.
The project known as Quaker Arts will convert three row homes at 708-10, 816 and 822 N. West St. into 53 apartment units targeted at tenants with an income between 30% and 80% of the area median income. Those units will also prioritize renting to artists of all types, according to Connections Community Support Programs, the owner and developer of the project.
“Our No. 1 priority is affordable housing for Wilmington with the second one being the regeneration of the arts in that area,” said Theresa Buchanan, Connections CSP director of communication and community relations. “First preference is going to be given to anyone in the arts or striving to be in the arts, whether that’s written word or musical performance or visual art, etc.”
The project will also convert the former integrated health clinic at 801 N. West St. into a collaborative studio space for the artists who live in the rental units. The nearly 12,000-square-foot, two-story building will feature four art studio spaces that can be reserved by the tenants, a computer lab for writers, a multipurpose room and four music rooms for musicians.
Connections CSP is not generally known as a housing provider, although it does own and manage the 29-unit, income-eligible Claymont Street Apartments and operates more than 100 locations, including transitional housing and group and sober-living homes. The nonprofit is better known as one of the largest treatment providers in the state for addiction and behavioral health services.
While Connections CSP is the owner of the properties — most of which it’s held for nearly two decades — a coalition of backers have helped make the project a reality. Community development organization Cinnaire is working with Discover Bank to provide Delaware State Historic Tax Credits related to the 708-710 N. West St. renovation, Buchanan said. Meanwhile, the Delaware State Housing Authority awarded the project a $614,000 rebate last year through its Downtown Development District grant program. Other parties involved include The Reinvestment Fund, Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh, NCALL Research Fund and Alliant Capital, a California-based low-income housing tax credit firm.
Alliant Vice President Macy Kisilinsky said that this project was unique, even for his firm that often works on financing for multi-family residential projects.
“It’s a unique pair to have arts with a supportive service social services agency,” he said. “When it’s completed it will really be very unique in the United States. I’ve been doing this for close to 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Buchanan said that the housing renovations are expected to be completed by July 2021, while the communal art space at 801 N. West St. should open in February 2022. A total cost for the project wasn’t available, Buchanan said, but Connections CSP has mortgaged the properties for a total of more than $13.2 million, according to county land records.
The property will be managed by HDC Mid-Atlantic, which manages other low-income communities in Delaware. It will be the one to determine whether a prospective tenant qualifies as an artist for prioritization, Buchanan said.
Renata Kowalczyk, CEO of Wilmington Alliance, a nonprofit tasked with growing economic opportunity in the city, said that she was excited to see Quaker Arts join the West Center City neighborhood starting next year. It’s part of a growing renaissance of art in downtown Wilmington, spearheaded by the Creative District idea formed back in 2013 by the Alliance’s predecessor, Wilmington Renaissance Corporation.
“We’ve seen this movement quite a bit around the country about prioritizing housing for folks who already live in this neighborhood and giving them opportunities to go from leasing to buying,” Kowalczyk said. “In the city council meetings, we’re beginning to talk about affordable housing and I’m happy that we are talking about it.”
The Creative District targets the area bound by Fourth, Ninth, Market and Washington streets to push economic opportunity westward from the Market Street corridor. Spaces like NextFab have opened in recent years, but Kowalczyk said the Alliance is eyeing more opportunities.
She said they are working with Grace United Methodist Church at the corner of Ninth and Washington streets to open a commercial kitchen, where entrepreneurial chefs, bakers and the like could get their start. Wilmington Alliance will also connect those entrepreneurs to wraparound services like lenders and advisers.
Another project is the Art O Mat, a former laundromat and liquor store that became a nuisance site and was later condemned. The city bought the property at 501 W. Seventh St. a few years ago and voted in June to turn it over to Wilmington Alliance, which has raised funds to renovate the site and turn it into an art gallery and venue. It estimates it will spend $600,000 on the project over the next five years.
A smaller adjoining space to the Art O Mat will be used for temporary pop-up shops, aiming at those testing out their recipes in the church’s commercial kitchen.
“If they want to dabble with what it will be like to actually have an open space to sell their products, they will be able to do that for three months without any cost to them,” Kowalczyk said.
By Jacob Owens