Thursday, February 29, 2024

Historical activists make their play, county defends process with Project Grace vote at hand

Part 2: This is the second of a three-part series on the private-public partnership that could lead to the reformation of a block of county-owned land, and the reconstruction of a library and museum, known as Project Grace. Part 3 will be released following the Board of Commissioners meeting March 15, exploring the path forward.

The Cape Fear Museum (Port City Daily/File)
While staff will recommend that the Cape Fear Museum be kept as off-site storage and research space — if a new structure is built as a component of Project Grace — it’s still unclear what will become of the museum and the nearby parking lots, all owned by New Hanover County (Port City Daily/File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — County commissioners plan to cast votes on Monday morning that will sway the look of downtown Wilmington for years to come. 

Initially brought to the table in 2018, Project Grace is a proposed public-private partnership between the county and a private firm, Zimmer Development Company. If approved by commissioners, it could lead to the construction of a new museum, library and multifamily residences on land now owned by the county.

County leaders contend that the Cape Fear Museum and downtown library are in serious need of upgrades. Both county-owned facilities would be recreated on the site of the current library if the deal moves forward. While the future of the existing Cape Fear Museum building is unclear, it’s seen as a given that the current downtown library — housed in a former department store built in the early 1950s — would be demolished to make room for the new structures. 

During recent weeks, library and museum officials took concerns to county leadership in an effort to influence the tentative agreement between Zimmer and New Hanover County. 

RELATED: Part 1: Redevelopment of county-owned property planned in high-dollar deal

According to a county spokesperson, staff will recommend the Cape Fear Museum building be retained by the county for an off-site research and collections center, rather than grouping the museum into the collection of parcels that will be under Zimmer’s control. 

“We cannot fulfill that mission of attracting new investment with substandard public facilities,” Holly Childs, Wilmington Downtown Inc.’s new president said during a live-streamed county roundtable event.

“When I look at the Project Grace block, as I do everyday walking to and from work, I see a block of blight,” Childs said, “a block full of public facilities that need repair and investment, and a library that, frankly, I originally thought was a jail given its lack of windows.” 

In 2014, commissioners approved a park on museum property, projected to cost $776,000. The project was funded primarily with money provided by a voter-approved bond referendum in 2006. Money from a previous 2006 bond also bankrolled the reformation of a .4-acre park connected to the downtown library.

Agents of Historic Wilmington Foundation and other preservation-minded groups have criticized the county’s approach to the project. They argue refurbishment and upgrades to the existing structures on the lot — which also includes the Borst building constructed in 1926 — would be preferable to razing the buildings and starting from scratch. Green space is also desired.

“The Historic Wilmington Foundation respectfully requests that New Hanover County place a historic preservation easement managed by the Historic Wilmington Foundation on the Borst Building,” Travis Gilbert, Historic Wilmington Foundation executive director, wrote in a letter to the board of commissioners. 

Because the Borst Building — originally Wilmington’s first Chrysler dealership and previously the Register of Deeds building — is defined as a contributing historic structure, its demolition will require approvals from the City of Wilmington.

“The county has not engaged the city on that topic because the site’s design has not been conducted and it’s not know[n] how or if that building will be included in a final plan,” a county spokesperson wrote in an email.

Ambiguity over locally-aimed legislation sparks a disagreement

The law firm of State Senator Michael Lee began working on behalf of Zimmer’s interests at some point after the idea for Project Grace originally surfaced in 2017-2018. Zimmer was the only company to complete a development proposal for the county. 

According to a report from WHQR-FM, New Hanover County requested that representatives craft a law that would “give them authority to enter into downtown development agreements.” 

Session Law 2017-86 exempts the county from certain elements of state regulation on public-private partnerships, given that at least 25% of construction and renovation costs are borne by entities other than the county. 

The WHQR report asserted that the law, for which Lee served on the conference committee while it was a bill, absolves the Project Grace deal from Local Government Commission oversight. The LGC acts as the gatekeeper for localities seeking to engage in high-dollar partnerships like this one, which will cost taxpayers more than $90 million over two decades. 

The terms of the Memorandum of Understanding between Zimmer and the county call for a 20-year lease. Zimmer will buy the land from the county and lease it back at a rate not exceeding $4.508 million per year. After 20 years, the county owns the Grace St. parcel once more. 

County officials pushed back against the WHQR report; they countered that leases of $500,000 or more, and of more than five years in duration, require LGC approval.

County Manager Chris Coudriet emailed staff, after the report was published, to fight the narrative that the county was attempting to bypass approval from the LGC. Still, according to WHQR, the oversight requirements cited by the county are the same ones for which SL 2017-86 grants exemptions. The position of the county is the project will need LGC approval. 

Leadership is eager to frame the new Project Grace agreement as a fresh start. The county called on the Historic Wilmington Foundation to provide names of developers and architects “with expertise in historic preservation,” according to a county spokesperson. The foundation has stated that while it does not oppose development of the block, preserving the Borst building is crucial.

“LS3P was identified by the [Historic Wilmington Foundation] and through this fresh new start, Zimmer brought them on as the design partner,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

Christopher Boney, chief relationships officer at LS3P, participated in the county roundtable event. His family has been involved in Wilmington architecture for 100 years, he said. Boney’s grandfather worked on the design of New Hanover High School, and Boney added that the firm was also working with UNCW to renovate the university’s Randall Library.

“Every architect wants to create a great design, great work of art, but we also have to be really cognizant of building an urban fabric in a way that respects what came before it,” he said at the event. “We look forward to the challenge.”

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