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As a native of Wilmington, Del., Sheldon A. Weinstein knows it’s not always a case of “build it and they will come.” That was evident when Weinstein’s law firm, Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, began looking for new office space in 1998. Given a choice of moving closer to the new New Castle County Courthouse, which is under construction in the lower King Street area, or staying near Rodney Square, Young Conaway chose the latter. Ever since work began last year on the $130 million justice center at Fifth and King streets in Wilmington, the speculation has been that the courthouse will act as a magnet, drawing law firms to the area around lower Market and King streets. Scheduled to open in September 2002, the 14-floor courthouse — located on five acres that have been vacant for nearly 40 years — is expected to create a demand for office space, restaurants and hotel accommodations for out-of-state attorneys. But the city’s big law firms are staying put — at least for now. Indeed, several firms have recently signed or renewed leases on office space near Rodney Square — the most prestigious office location in town since the DuPont Co. chose 10th and Market streets for its headquarters location in 1904. The Rodney Square address also puts law firms close to the current New Castle County Courthouse at 10th and King streets. The fact that law firms are committing themselves for as long as a decade to buildings near the square, could be evidence of what urban planners have long held to be true: Wilmington’s private sector marches to its own beat, regardless of public initiatives. Not only are law firms not moving, but developers aren’t building. Furthermore, there simply aren’t any large blocks of class A space anywhere in Wilmington today, leaving big practices with very few options but the office towers near Rodney Square. Vacancy rates for class A space stands at 4 percent, which is essentially full occupancy. Even if a new office tower were to get underway today in the courthouse area, it would be two years before it would be ready for occupants, said Daniel R. Reeder Jr., senior vice president of CB Richard Ellis in Greenville. To be sure, the only large space coming on the market right now is the renovated former DuPont buildings — the Nemours and Brandywine buildings. For the 67-lawyer Young Conaway firm, the Brandywine Building became the answer to its additional space needs. The firm recently signed a 10-year lease with two five-year renewal options on 66,834 square feet in the Brandywine Building. The D-shaped former DuPont Co. building is part of the $100 million redevelopment project called Center City Wilmington project. Young Conaway expects to move from its long-time location in the Wilmington Trust Center on Rodney Square in July 2001. RICHARDS LAYTON RENEWS After a long search, Richards Layton & Finger renewed its lease on five floors in One Rodney Square for another 10 years. “I think firms are content to stay [near Rodney Square], but there are no viable alternatives,” said Charles F. Richards Jr. of Richards Layton. “We’re a big operation — we have to plan in advance.” Joining Young Conaway in the Brandywine Building is Klett Rooney Lieber & Schorling. The 15-lawyer firm signed a 10-year lease on roughly 16,000-square feet. The firm has already moved in. “We had to find space year. The [new] courthouse is still a long way off,” said partner Richard A. Forsten. “Someone may start work an office building before the courthouse opens — but they haven’t broken ground on anything yet.” Miami-based Greenberg Traurig, which has been in Wilmington for a little more than a year, took 6,500 square feet in the Brandywine Building. The three-lawyer firm signed a five-year lease with options on the space. Boston’s Fish & Richardson, which specializes in intellectual property work, recently signed a five-year-lease on 6,200 square feet in the Mellon Bank Building at 919 N. Market St. The firm chose the site because it is close to the federal courthouse. For Young Conaway, a lot of considerations besides proximity to the courthouse went into its decision to stay near Rodney Square, said Weinstein, who is managing partner with Young Conaway. Parking, around-the-clock security for employees, nearness to Interstate 95 and access to amenities such as restaurants, hotels and fitness clubs were all factors Young Conaway weighed when choosing a new home. The Brandywine Building was also attractive to Young Conaway because it could be wired with state-of-the-art technology — something that would have been very difficult and disruptive to do as a renovation, said Eugene A. DiPrinzio, a partner with Young Conaway. NEW CENTER NO FACTOR For firms that do a lot of work in the federal courts at Ninth and King streets, the new Justice Center is not really a factor in where they locate. Scott D. Cousins, managing partner with Greenberg Traurig, said most of its practice is in U.S. Bankruptcy Court and U.S. District Court. “We don’t do a lot of state court work, so moving near the new courthouse wasn’t an option for us,” said Cousins. What’s more, lawyers and urban planners now question the importance of being within a few steps of the justice center. In many cities, the courthouses are not conveniently located, including Philadelphia, said DiPrinzio. At 550,000-square-feet, the massive new New Castle County Courthouse should dominate the landscape in the lower Market and King streets area, further reducing the sense of distance that was created by blocks of open space. “I mean, considering the small scale of the city, how much difference does it really make to be in Rodney Square or in the Christina Gateway?” said David L. Ames, director of the Center for Historic Architecture and Design at the University of Delaware. To Ames, the legal business is one of the last areas where face-to-face contact is needed, for example, when taking depositions or negotiating contracts or meeting with clients. For that reason, firms might tend to cluster near each other in the Rodney Square area. And there’s still a prestige to being in the Rodney Square area, which is the highest point in the city, Ames said. But the law firms could also simply be responding to a real estate market that has yet to respond to the short supply. Unlike some of the other top employers in Delaware — the financial institutions and manufacturing companies — law firms rarely build their own office buildings, Reeder said. “Law firms are great second tenants,” said Reeder. “But it would be very difficult for a law firm to build a new building because it’s hard to get financing. Even though law firms make a lot of money, what recourse does a lender have if the firm breaks up?”

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