Corporate Capital Tries Trading Pinstripes for Party Hats

Wilmington, Del., is the latest US city to try to shake its sleepy weekend image with a revitalized riverfront.

During lunch hour, the downtown district here is teeming with white-collar workers from the Dupont Co. and credit-card giants MBNA and First USA Bank. They crowd restaurants and run errands on Market Street Mall.

Come evenings and weekends, however, it's a different story. Sidewalks curl up, and stores slumber. Wilmington, Del., - often called the corporate capital of the world - becomes an urban ghost town.

To lure locals back to the city and attract day-trippers from nearby New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, Wilmington is pinning its hopes on the revitalization of the Christina riverfront, an area south of the central business district now primarily populated by dilapidated warehouses.

"If we create a destination attractive enough to people 60 miles away, they will come," says Michael Purzycki, executive director of the Riverfront Development Corp., which is overseeing the project.

He's now putting that theory into practice. On Aug. 1, the First USA Riverfront Arts Center began hosting its inaugural exhibit, "Nicholas and Alexandra: The Last Imperial Family of Czarist Russia."

The 500,000 people expected to attend the four-month exhibit will view a work in progress. Surrounded by new plantings, the sleek $10 million arts center sits on recently cleared land dotted with bulldozers, rusty shipbuilding cranes, and brick smokestacks. A nearby ballpark and restaurant/nightclub are existing attractions.

Currently under construction are a 400,000-square-foot retail center, which will house such catalog staples as L.L. Bean and Coldwater Creek, a 1.5 mile riverwalk, and a conference center. Land is being acquired for a 250-acre wildlife refuge. Many of the planned attractions will center on Wilmington's history as a shipbuilding center during World War II.

Wilmington is hardly alone in seeking new life from its waterfront. Since the Rouse Company opened Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston in 1976 and Harborplace in Baltimore's Inner Harbor in 1980, cities from Buffalo, N.Y., to Saginaw, Mich., have considered going with the flow.

"Old waterfronts seem to be the most likely sites for development, either because they're unsightly or because the economy for that site has gone," says Karen Danielsen, director of residential policy and practice for the Washington-based Urban Land Institute, a research and trade association.

LIKE the award-winning Inner Harbor and the San Antonio Riverwalk in Texas, most waterfront projects mix historical elements, specialty shops, and trendy restaurants with regional draws, such as aquariums, museums, and IMAX theaters.The result is a "festival market," says David Ames, professor of urban affairs and public policy at the University of Delaware in Newark.

"They help counter the trend in downtown areas that have almost completely lost retailing, and they're tied into tourism," he explains. "Some have been as successful as major theme parks."

Still, it's a risky business. Cities must consider the marketplace, says Ms. Danielsen. Take the waterfront in Jersey City, N.J., for instance. "They started developing high-end housing just as the market crashed in 1987," she says. "They weren't able to sell it."

Then there are environmental issues. "We have properties under contract that are wretchedly contaminated," Mr. Purzycki says. "When you ship oil for a business, you spill oil. For years, these [land] parcels have been used for this purpose."

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