Milford Riverwalk has plenty of development potential

An aerial view of Milford’s Riverwalk, where many of the city’s prospective plans for real estate development in and around downtown sit along its path. Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

MILFORD — Since construction of the Riverwalk began in the 1980s, the path that would eventually be a full mile of trail along the banks of the Mispillion River has been central to Milford’s identity.

Today, many of the city’s prospective plans for real estate development in and around downtown are along the path, which features nature-oriented educational trail signs, plenty of idyllic places to sit and pedestrian access to many of Milford’s most notable parks — like the new dog park, the Washington Street basketball court and the Goat Island Nature Preserve.

Brad Dennehy, the director of Milford’s Parks & Recreation Department, said the Riverwalk concept “dates back to the establishment of the Parks & Recreation Department in 1974 and the purchase of Goat Island in 1976, (which was) the first section to be purchased but the last to be completed in 2014.”

Construction began in 1988, he said, and was finished in 2014. But there’s one addition some in the community would still like to see.

The Vinyard Shipyard, a once-bustling factory that churned out warships throughout the 20th century, now sits largely unused. But it’s a site with deep historical significance for the city.

It’s also a piece of privately owned land that splits the Riverwalk in two. To traverse the entire length of the path, pedestrians and cyclists must cut through the parking lot behind Calvary United Methodist Church and go onto Columbia Street, which leads into the path’s eastern section.

Vinyard Shipyard

“Conceptual plans had been created to show potentially how the Riverwalk could extend through the Vinyard property,” Mr. Dennehy said.

“Previously, a community group (was) formed to explore the possibility of buying the property,” he said. “However, it is my understanding that the property is not on the market and the group has placed all intentions of purchasing the property on hold at this time.”

Diane Cicala of Milford walks her dogs along the Riverwalk Thursday, which she says she does every day.

Mr. Dennehy said that at this point, the city has no plans to build on that property.

“Unless the city is able to obtain an easement or purchase the property, it would be difficult for the city to obtain grant funding to construct any connecting walkway project,” he said.

Sudler and Joan Lofland bought the property, and a few other nearby lots, in the ’90s.

The Loflands, who live at the shipyard now, would like to see it integrated into the Riverwalk and have been working through a group called the Friends of the Vinyard Shipyard over the past few years to sell it to the city.

“They would like to see the shipyard preserved, so they were asking the city if the city had an interest in buying the shipyard to preserve it and keep it operational, but also to be able to have the Riverwalk cross it,” said Dan Bond, a local real estate developer and member of the Friends of the Vinyard Shipyard.

Back in 2014, he said the Loflands “first asked the city if the city would be interested in purchasing the shipyard from them at that time, as the last piece of riverfront property that was needed to make a continuous Riverwalk all the way from Goat Island to Silver Lake. It’s the only piece now that they don’t have, really.”

But the city turned their offer down, he said.

“The city looked into it, asked a few outside experts to advise them and decided that they didn’t really see that the city could take over the maintenance and operation of the shipyard,” Mr. Bond said.

While the shipyard is no longer an active manufacturing facility and currently just serves as the Loflands’ home, the couple has restored and maintained the historic structures on the lot and collected a number of artifacts from the shipyard’s storied history. They would like to open the facility to the public as a museum, but don’t have the resources to do that without outside help.

That’s why the Friends of the Vinyard Shipyard was created, Mr. Bond said, “to find out if there was a way we could convince the city to buy it and if we could get some outside money. That’s usually the key to getting the city to do something, is getting some kind of big grant.”

Initially, Mr. Bond said the group was mostly focused on getting the state to take over the site, but once COVID-19 hit this year, members realized that wasn’t going to happen given all the expenses Delaware was taking on to fight the virus.

He reported that the group’s efforts have been at a standstill, since the virus has made it difficult for people to gather and discuss things safely in person. But Mr. Bond does know that he would like the Delaware Nature Society to be part of the shipyard’s future.

“We put together a plan to work with Delaware Nature Society to bring them into Milford over the next couple of years,” he said.
“What Delaware Nature Society wants to do is to start offering programs on the Riverwalk. They have the Abbott’s Mill (Nature Center) effort well underway, and they could use that as a base of operations and just schedule events to get people doing things along the Riverwalk,” Mr. Bond said.

In addition to its ecological tours, he added that the group “could help in terms of curating groups visiting the shipyard.”

At City Council’s most recent retreat meeting, Mr. Dennehy spoke extensively about the city’s upcoming partnership with DNS.

“They’re really good at their educational programs. They’ve got a lot of really smart volunteers,” he said. “Their whole thing is trying to get people outside into the natural world.”

Mr. Dennehy reported that he’s “drafting a memorandum of understanding,” for the partnership, “which basically just outlines what we are going to do and what they are going to do.”

But the topic of integrating the shipyard into the city’s partnership with DNS did not come up at the meeting. In fact, the shipyard was not discussed at any length over the course of the three-and-a-half-hour gathering, which focused in large part on the Parks & Recreation Department’s plans.

Riverwalk Villas

Right near the shipyard, between Marshall and Columbia streets, there are plans for a new riverfront residential development called the Riverwalk Villas.

Rob Pierce, Milford’s planning and economic development director, said the plan for 48 apartment units has been in the works since he began his job with the city in 2015.

The project is being carried out by a firm called Mispillion Street Partners LLC.

Since construction of the Riverwalk began in the 1980s, the path that would be a full mile of trail along the banks of the Mispillion River has been central to Milford’s identity.

“It received final site plan approval from the Planning Commission” back in February, Mr. Pierce said, meaning that developers could begin construction immediately if they wanted to.

He added that the company has received a sizable grant from Milford’s Downtown Development District program.

But Mr. Bond, who like the Loflands has invested in several properties around downtown, said the project is essentially on hold at this time.

“Because those grants require that you spend at least 15% of the construction funding within 12 months, and they had done nothing, at the end of 12 months, they reapplied last year and got the grant allocated to them once again, and still, they’ve done nothing,” he said.

In his opinion, “the group that currently owns it does not have the intent of doing the project themselves. They would like to find somebody else (to whom) they can sell the land and all the project preparation work they’ve done.”

Mr. Bond believes this because Mispillion Street Partners had actually offered to sell him the project at one point.

“They’ve put money into working with the city, drawing up architectural and engineering plans, preparing the site. They would like to recoup their money,” he said. “I frankly don’t think they’re going to do the project if they can find someone else who wants to invest in it and buy their lands and plans. Then, it might go forward.”

Mr. Bond said he is not a fan of the project’s design, so he declined to purchase it.

“I think it’s trying to put too many units into too small of an area,” he said, “but if someone else thinks that they can make it work, they may want to purchase it.”

Tom Lockwood, the owner of Mispillion Partners, could not be reached for comment.

City-owned plots potentially available for mixed-use plans

There are two other lots on the Riverwalk that the city’s 2018 Downtown Development District plan designated as open to mixed-use development.

The first is the park on Washington Street, which is currently home to one of Milford’s basketball courts, and the other is a plot of land near the Arena’s restaurant and part of Bicentennial Park.

A fisherman trying his luck along the banks of the Mispillion River in Milford.

“It showed a potential mixed-use building on that property,” Mr. Pierce said of the space in Bicentennial Park.

He envisioned the space as a good place for a restaurant. The lot would allow riverfront outdoor seating, and Arena’s, another popular watering hole, would be right next door.

But it was the property on Washington Street that got the attention of a developer and, as a result, the city’s.

“Back when we had prepared the master plan and were preparing to submit our Downtown Development District application to the state of Delaware, we were approached by a gentleman that was doing work in Seaford,” Mr. Pierce said.

He said the developer, David Perlmutter, “showed an interest in the Washington Street property, so we kind of embarked down the land-disposition process.”

When he first approached the city with a plan for the space in 2017, Mr. Perlmutter had proposed a mixed-use building, which would feature retail on the first floor and apartments on the upper levels.

But back in October of this year, he and an architect returned to City Council with a design for the building that nixed the retail aspect, leaving just apartments. Council members were not happy about this and, ultimately, voted to have the property remain a park.

“Once you give up public open space, you can’t get it back, and this is an area that’s currently used frequently by the public,” Vice Mayor Jason James said in October. “It does need some enhancements to attract more people, to make it more usable, but it should remain public land for public use.”

Surrounding this decision was some discussion of adding additional recreational facilities adjacent to the basketball court. No concrete plans have been fleshed out at this point, but there are ideas floating around.

At the last City Council retreat meeting, Mr. Dennehy proposed the Washington Street property as a possible location for a splash pad.

“I think Milford needs a bit of a draw,” he said. “There’s no one else, as far as I know, in the state of Delaware that’s got (one).”

In the wintertime, he said the space could possibly be repurposed as an outdoor ice skating rink.

Mr. Dennehy also confirmed that the Parks & Recreation Department has no plans to add any additional facilities to the property at this time.

It will, however, complete updates to the basketball court soon.

He said the city will “finish with the improvements to the basketball court over the next few months. Any future plans will be based on the needs identified in the strategic plan in conjunction with the Parks & Recreation Advisory Board and council.”