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Downtown Dover plan starts to take shape

Katie Tabeling
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Downtown Dover Loockerman Street Delaware

The new Downtown Dover Master Plan aims to incentivize development in the capital city to revitalize activity, especially in areas like Loockerman Street. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

DOVER — It’s been a long road to get the Downtown Dover Master Plan complete, and city officials and stakeholders are already starting the first steps in a years-long initiative to turn the blueprint into a reality.

For the past month, the Downtown Dover Partnership took the “Capital City 2030: Transforming Downtown Dover” plan on a series of presentations to state, county, city and business forums to gather feedback as the nonprofit finalized the document to outline the state capital’s future. In the final presentation for the general public, DDP Executive Director Diane Laird said that 200 people participated, and excitement was high.

“We finally had to shut it down after two hours, and people lingered afterward to talk,” Laird said. “It’s really important to get people engaged at the completion so everyone can see the involvement the community plays in this. This is also a plan that’s not created in imagination but in reality, understanding our assets and our challenges.”

Mosaic Development Partners and its consultants Kimley-Horn, Econsult Solutions and Bernardon, spent the year interviewing hundreds of people in the Dover community as well as looking at zoning codes, demographics, and infrastructure. At its core, it proposed $500 million in investment for roughly 15 acres of developable land throughout the city, which may include 97,700 square feet of commercial space, a 27,500-square-foot grocery store, a riverwalk that augment the 21 acres of open space, and more. 

But zooming in on the big picture, there’s several small steps to take in the miles ahead to achieve the goal to revive the downtown district. Before developers can reshape the city and businesses and residents can live, shop and play, the city has to set the conditions to bring that investment.

New face

Since the roll-out of the master plan, Laird meets every Monday morning with a select group of county and city stakeholders to discuss priorities outlined in the master plan. The subcommittee includes Kent Economic Partnership Executive Director Linda Parkowski, City Manager Dave Hugg, City Planner Mary Ellen Gray, DDP Board President Todd Stonesifer, Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce President Dina Vendetti, DDP economics development and operations manager Tina Bradbury, DDP administrator Jordan Resh and lobbyist Scott Kidner.

Among the many topics discussed on those calls is creating a public-private partnership to spearhead redevelopment entirely, modeled after the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) or the Delaware Turf Complex. After 27 years, the RDC boasts of $495 million in state investments in what were Wilmington’s forgotten warehouses from its shipbuilding past while DE Turf continues to draw in thousands of visitors to Frederica and spur potential development nearby on the Route 1 corridor.

“This is a lot of public redevelopment, and a good portion of it may need investment from the private sector. Large-scale projects simply can’t happen in the private sector alone, there needs to be some public engagement if it’s intended to benefit the entire community,” Laird said.

That may be a long-range plan, but the DDP is now working to make an immediate step of searching for a property development director on a contractual basis. That role will be tasked with the full-time work to recruit developers, identify funding and streamline work on key sites identified throughout downtown.

Ideally, this contractor would work in the DDP on a one-year contract basis with renewal options. While there are some questions outstanding, Laird said if the public-private partnership was formed, it’s likely the position would report to that organization’s board of directors. The deadline for applications was March 31 and interviews are already scheduled.

“We’re not just saying this is a priority, it is a priority,” Laird said. “We don’t want to go too far down the road trying to implement redevelopment, without having that person in place.”

Funding mechanisms

While the future property development director will be tasked with exploring possible funding for redevelopment projects, there may be old tools at hand for the city to start utilizing to draw interest.

Downtown Dover has a number of vacancies that could see new life under the Master Plan. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

That includes Opportunity Zones, a designation that entices investors to infuse money into funds for long periods of time to see tax breaks. Staying in an Opportunity Zone fund for at least five years could see 10% of the gain excluded from taxes, while 10 years results in tax-free gains. Dover has three such zones, two that cover the downtown area from Route 8 and bordered by Route 13 and Wyoming Mill Road.

That has seen little action, according to city officials, but it’s not too late to capitalize.

Meanwhile, last year saw state and city officials pave the way for two other mechanisms that Mosaic recommended while drafting the master plan: tax increment financing (TIF) districts and conduit bonds.

State Sen. Trey Paradee (D-Dover/Camden) sponsored legislation last year that awarded Dover the ability to issue conduit bonds through a council vote. These bonds offer low-cost financing on behalf of private entities for revenue-generating projects that benefit the community. 

Once issued, the city would collect tax revenue for the bond, while debt repayment is up to the private entity. Benefits include exemption from taxes and interest, and could offer higher yields than other municipal bonds.

TIF districts, on the other hand, capture increases in property taxes and other taxes spurred by new development to pay for that development. When established, the property taxes are frozen at the time, and any increases to the property tax are sent to a special fund. That special fund is restricted to use of improvements within the TIF district. 

Dover city council passed an ordinance last December that gave it the authority to create such a district. 

“Right now, these options are more abstract than anything, until we have a project to tie them to and handle the financing,” City Manager Dave Hugg told the Delaware Business Times.

Meanwhile, as the legislature has until June to pass an operating budget and bond bill, Dover officials and the DDP are lobbying to receive funding for implementation of the master plan. This year, the city is also seeking funds to improve water and stormwater in the downtown corridor.

“A lot of the system is old and antiquated, and not really suited for heavy density projects that the plan suggests,” Hugg said. “I would say it’s a critical need.”

Streamlining the process

The master plan suggests adding several mixed-use buildings to downtown Dover, something that already exists but may not be as well-known. Dover’s code allows for six-floor story buildings for mixed-use projects. The district’s most prominent landmark may be the former Bayard building, with 48 income-restricted apartments above a suite of commercial spaces. Dover’s code allows for six-floor story buildings for mixed-use projects.

Mixed-use buildings like the Bayard Building on Loockerman Street could help bring more activity downtown. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

Retail vacancy in downtown is about 50%. But while there may not be many single apartments on the second and third floors above stores, all are occupied. And if someone moves out, someone quickly moves in. 

“For the most part, our zoning does have simple classifications for mixed-use. The one requirement is that the first floor has to be a certain percentage of commercial,” Hugg said.

The next question is: what tweaks can be made in the Dover zoning ordinance to make it more streamlined and easier to navigate for developers. Dover City Planner Mary Ellen Gray has started a working group to take a deep dive into Mosaic’s recommendations, and start a potentially long process of revising it.

“There’s nothing glaring about the ordinance that needs to be adjusted, but it’s a question of does the height requirements for mixed-use need to change? What about parking requirements, if that’s something we need to lower as we’re trying to promote more foot traffic?” Gray said. 

Another concern may be the permitting and approval process for Dover. Hugg said that if a proposal has issues that need to be worked through for a new project, it could be weeks before it appears for a final approval before the council. But in downtown, where buildings are older, Gray said there’s two major issues that can stymie businesses from opening up: sprinkler systems and ADA improvements for bathrooms, curbs and more.

“That’s one of the biggest challenges, because that’s not something we can change in the code. I will say, if a property owner or someone looking at buying a property comes to our office, we do go out and give a tour of the site and talk through what improvements need to be made,” Gray said. “I do think that’s something unique that we offer.”

Last year, the DDP received $1.2 million from the legislature to address critical improvements at many downtown properties. The programs are focused on getting storefronts up to code, with awards averaging at $100,000. Laird said the organization is getting ready to announce recipients.

Trails and Transportation

The final piece of the master plan is improving its transportation network and elevating its parks. 

Downtown Dover Plan rendering, Mosaic Jan 18 2023. | IMAGE COURTESY OF THE DOWNTOWN DOVER PARTNERSHIP

The Downtown Dover plan includes a rendering of Loockerman Way Plaza, looking west at South Bradford Street. Rough concepts have farmer’s market as well as apartments on the floor above. | IMAGE COURTESY OF DDP

Broadly, suggested outlined by Mosaic include pedestrian safety and traffic calming techniques to encourage foot traffic, including painted crosswalks and narrowing streets. Other options include bollards at Kings Highway and State Street. Loockerman Street was also targeted for broader sidewalks and narrowing the road to encourage outdoor dining.

To make it a multi-modal community, Mosaic also recommends looking at augmenting transit services from DSU Downtown, Bayhealth, Loockerman Street and the DAFB. Bike share programs are also popular with younger people, and adding bike lanes could also incentivize drawing a younger crowd.

Dover has already gotten a head start in transportation improvements in a sense; back in January, it sought to be included in the Dover/Kent Metropolitan Planning Organization’s next round of studies in Fiscal Year 2024.

The Dover/Kent MPO Executive Director Marilyn Smith said the organization is finalizing the contract with a consultant on its list of priority projects this year, but the next year will include a study on expanded pathways and modes of transportation Downtown Dover. 

“Our consultant did look at the DDP suggestions and grouped them together because they did seem similar. The master plan is very high level, so to make it a reality, there needs to be more detail, more pen to paper,” Smith said. “It’s not just about paths, it’s about amenities – do we need bike connectors and bike racks in the city?”

The study is slated to cost more than $100,000 and would be complete by June 2024.

Meanwhile, the Dover Parks, Recreation and Community Enhancement Committee  is already looking into proposals for an art walk and amphitheater at Memorial Park as well as a river walk along the Saint Jones River. Both projects involve public land, but Hugg said it could also include a deal with a private party for redevelopment.

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