Wilmington officials to Biden: Help us a build national park over I-95. What is proposed

Sarah Gamard
Delaware News Journal

Some Wilmington officials want to build a national park on top of I-95 to reconnect neighborhoods that were divided by the highway more than half a century ago.

And they are looking to the White House and Delaware's own President Joe Biden for help.

Delaware is currently renovating I-95 where it cuts through its largest city, and officials are heeding the latest calls from city revitalization advocates who see the park as an opportunity to foster racial equity and help restore the West Wilmington neighborhoods that were hurt by the construction of the highway.

It's not the first time that officials have considered the idea, but funding has proven to be an obstacle.

Officials now hope to take advantage of Biden's "Build Back Better" plan, which aims to grow the economy in part through greener infrastructure, by asking his administration to help build the park.

"What we could ultimately do is bring communities together that were divided by I-95 running right through the city of Wilmington prior to many of us being born," said Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker, D-Wilmington, one of the officials behind the nascent project. She added that the park could also foster environmental justice.

Plans are in the early stages, and it's unclear exactly what Wilmington's park would look like, where exactly it would be, when it would be built or how it would be paid for.

Officials are considering building it through a public-private partnership, Dorsey Walker said. It's also unclear how much it would cost.

What a park across I-95 would look like

Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker stands for a portrait on the 6th Street bridge over I-95 Friday, March 19, 2021. Dorsey Walker hopes to build the nation's first urban national park on top of a capped I-95 someday.

The park would potentially be built in Wilmington's West Side where the interstate runs through Sixth, Seventh and Eighth streets to connect the Cool Spring, Quaker Hill, Trinity Vicinity, Hilltop, Tilton Park and West Center City neighborhoods, Dorsey Walker said.

The park would be similar to the Klyde Warren Park that spans over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway in Dallas and would be "a place where people could commune and really appreciate the beauty of the city of Wilmington," she said.

A similar park is underway in Philadelphia, where officials are planning on building their own cap over I-95 at the waterfront by 2024.

Several cities across the U.S. include national park sites, according to the National Park Service. Delaware's only national park is the First State National Historical Park, which consists of seven individual sites, including Old New Castle, that are spread throughout the entire state. 

In 2004, former Wilmington Mayor Jim Baker had a similar Wilmington park proposal, but it never came to fruition.

Baker said this month he simply "couldn't get the attention of funding sources" to make the park a reality.

"I still think that Wilmington has the potential of being a great city," said Baker, who is not involved in the latest proposal.

"I just hope they can make it (the park) because it's a great way of using space, and not wasting it with some doggone highway that should never have been built through the city in the first place."

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A long history of ideas

Former Wilmington Mayor Jim Baker included a proposal for a cap on I-95 in his "Vision for Wilmington 2030" document that he released through Executive Order in 2010. He first proposed a cap in 2004.

The construction of I-95 in Delaware cut directly through the city in the mid-1960s, exiling hundreds of residents.

Churches, theaters and businesses also disappeared to make way for the road. Wilmington's population dropped by more than 25,000 over the next three decades, while nearby communities such as Newark more than doubled in size.

Critics say the highway inadvertently ripped apart the social fabric of Wilmington by creating a permanent divider between corporate downtown and the West Side, and those working-class people who once lived in the highway's path were treated as expendable.

In a 1998 interview, Wilmington resident John Rago told The News Journal how his family was one of many to lose their home to the highway.

When he was 10 years old, Rago's family received a demolition notice from the state highway department, which he said "seemed to come out of nowhere" and made them feel that they had no say in having to move out of their house.

Rago is now the Wilmington mayor's deputy chief of staff for policy and communications.

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Dorsey Walker and five other Wilmington Democrats — Rep. Gerald Brady, Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha, Sen. Sarah McBride, Sen. Darius Brown and Sen. Tizzy Lockman — signed a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg asking for federal assistance to build a national park over that highway to reconnect those communities.

Only Congress and the president can establish a new national park.

Coons brought a copy of the letter to give to Buttigieg during a meeting between the two officials earlier this month, according to a spokesman for Dorsey Walker.

I-95 construction continues between the 6th and 7th Street bridges Friday, March 19, 2021.

Coons' office confirmed that the senator met with Buttigieg to talk about infrastructure, but did not confirm exactly what they discussed.

The Feb. 6 letter, sent this month, asks the federal government to put a "cap" on I-95 so that Delaware can create an urban national park with bike and walking trails, along with other amenities such as an amphitheater.

The park would foster equity and a sense of "togetherness and belonging," the letter reads.

The letter says that the state's renovation of I-95 is an opportunity to reunite neighborhoods that were disconnected when the highway was constructed, and that Wilmington faces "significant disparities and divisions due, in part, to I-95's presence through the heart of the city."

"We are proposing a cap on I-95 in order to help heal our city and to reconnect communities that were disconnected by the construction of a highway through neighborhoods in less affluent areas," the letter reads.

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State help possible

I-95 construction continues under the 6th Street bridge Friday, March 19, 2021.

The Delaware Department of Transportation has offered to pay $100,000 for a feasibility study to put a cap on I-95.

The potential study, which has not been approved yet, would not begin until next fiscal year which starts in July. The Wilmington Area Planning Council could approve the study in May.

The study would look at how to connect the neighborhoods that were divided by the interstate and would not necessarily result in a park, according to council member Tigist Zegeye.

Other possibilities include bike connections or other creative developments, she said.

"We have not decided exactly what is going to be done," Zegeye said.

A spokeswoman for DelDOT Secretary Nicole Majeski did not say whether the feasibility study request was in tandem with local officials' hopes to build a park.

"We are still working through the details," she wrote, adding that the study will bring together "all of the stakeholders to discuss options and see if there is consensus to move forward with a project."

City residents and revitalization activists have argued for the cap — and using the I-95 reconstruction as an opportunity to do it — in recent years.

In 2018, residents lobbied the idea to transportation officials who warned the challenge would be finding enough money for the project.

The funds could be even harder to come by now after state lawmakers postponed millions of dollars in construction projects due to budget shortfalls during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But with federal stimulus aid and a push by the White House for infrastructure spending, the project could get renewed interest.

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Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. Reach her at (302) 324-2281 or sgamard@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.