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Old Posted Sep 23, 2005, 9:39 PM
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mglan80 mglan80 is offline
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Location: Wilmington, DE
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WSFS Building Gets Under Way
$90 Million Office Tower to Rise in Wilmington's Western Gateway


When it comes to real estate development kickoffs, Tuesday's groundbreaking in downtown Wilmington felt so '80s.

There was the tent with the buffet spread, the collection of movers and shakers in dark suits and the usual back-slapping associated with a new development. These festive occasions were regular events in the 1980s after the state passed the Financial Center Development Act and the real estate community scrambled to house the dozens of out-of-state banks that migrated to the state.

But in recent years some ceremonies have seemed pale imitations of the go-go 1980s. Not so Tuesday, when 170 people gathered at the corner of Delaware Avenue and Jefferson Street to celebrate the construction of the central business district's first multitenant office tower in more than a decade.

"It's the best [groundbreaking] we've had in 20 years," said Leigh Johnstone, senior vice president of Grubb & Ellis in Wilmington. "It was reminiscent of the early 1980s when this was a boomtown for construction."

The new $90 million office building, to be called the WSFS Bank Center, is being developed by Buccini/Pollin Group Inc. of Wilmington. The company, which also is building town houses, condominiums and apartment buildings on the Christina River, has been one of the most active developers in the city in the past five years.

Not only is the 15-story tower a symbol to the real estate community that the city is ready for new construction, the building will fill a gap in what is considered the western gateway to the city, real estate experts and economic development officials said.

Three years ago, the Delaware Avenue boulevard from I-95 was beginning to look a little down-at-the-heels, with the former Chase Manhattan Bank building a looming vacant presence on the highway. ING Direct, the country's fourth-largest savings bank, began the revival of the western gateway in 2004 when it moved into the empty building, constructed in the mid-1980s. ING invested about $15 million to renovate the 14-story building at 802 Delaware Ave.

What's more, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Delaware, the state's largest health insurance company, has been in negotiations with a real estate developer for a space next to ING Direct on Delaware Avenue.

Richard V. Pryor, the city's economic development director, said negotiations with Blue Cross Blue Shield are "at the one-foot line" for newly-constructed office space at 800 Delaware Ave. It would be developed by Delle Donne & Associates Inc. of Claymont. A decision is expected in mid-October, Pryor said.

"This city is doing better than any city in the region," Mayor James M. Baker told the crowd. "This city's coming back."

The WSFS Bank Center is now 50 percent pre-leased, according to Robert Buccini, a partner in Buccini/Pollin. WSFS announced in June it will be a major tenant, as well as a minority owner, of the 371,222-square-foot tower. WSFS plans to move its corporate headquarters from its current location on North Market Street.

Earlier this year, Morris, James, Hitchens & Williams agreed to take 40,000 to 60,000 square feet of space on the building's top three floors.

David H. Williams, managing partner of Morris, James, said it's exciting for the firm to be part of the development of the city's newest office tower. The firm expects to move into the building when it is completed in the fall of 2006.

"I think it will energize the firm," he said.