Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Design team presents first look at Project Grace façade and proposed building

The street corner of the proposed Project Grace building. (Port City Daily/Courtesy New Hanover County)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The aesthetics and capacities of the library-museum building that will anchor a county-backed project with developers became more clear this week after the design team released images of the proposed building façade and more details on Project Grace.

The new images depict a three-story building marked by an exterior of glass and brick, with the Cape Fear Museum’s giant ground sloth skeleton gazing outward from a corner spot. The schematic design of the new building is now complete, county leaders announced Monday.

In March, after years of buildup, New Hanover County partnered with Zimmer Development Company and the architectural firm LS3P. The deal calls for total redevelopment of a block of county-owned downtown land — bordered by 2nd, 3rd, Chestnut and Grace streets — home to the county’s existing downtown library. 

On the north side of the block, the developers are charged with creating a new structure that will be occupied by the library and Cape Fear Museum, and serve as a community hub for decades to come. The south side of the block, where the library is now, will be afforded to the developers and turned into multi-family residences and other private uses. The total cost for the county is around $90 million over 20 years. 

Since the spring, the LS3P architects designing the project have brainstormed with advisory boards that oversee both the museum and county libraries, as well as institution staff. 

Meanwhile, county officials have worked to gel the entire approach with state regulators who oversee public-private partnerships, and developers have held talks with potential tenants. 

The next checkpoint for Project Grace is expected in January, when the county plans to present its financing proposal to the Local Government Commission for review. 

“We’re still finalizing the numbers and so forth,” chief strategy officer Jennifer Rigby told reporters Monday at the corner of 2nd and Grace streets. Local leaders gathered to promote the designs in advance of the board of commissioners meeting that afternoon.

The street corner of the proposed Project Grace building. (Port City Daily/Courtesy New Hanover County)

[Click here to view the three-story floor plan schematics]

Around the same time early next year, when the internal “design development” process wraps and construction documents are ready, the public-private team will move toward drafting the final development agreement and getting permits. Construction would start next summer if everything holds steady. 

Architectural features, like the main-entrance brick exterior at the corner of 3rd and Grace, shown in the new renderings, echo old Wilmington designs. Ballast stone retaining walls line the perimeter on the north side. 

LS3P vice president Chris Boney — whose family’s architectural firm, Boney Architects, became part of LS3P in 2005 — said Monday afternoon he thinks the Project Grace library-museum might be the most important building built locally in his lifetime. 

Boney’s grandfather designed New Hanover High School just over 100 years ago, which was the reason the family came to Wilmington, Boney said, “so there is great symmetry to paying homage to that tradition.” Members of the family designed landmark buildings in the last century, like the flagship New Hanover Regional Medical Center campus. LS3P has been enlisted by the hospital system again, now under Novant Health, as it explores long-term plans for the Scotts Hill area. Last year, Boney was tapped by the successor Novant Health hospital board to serve on the New Hanover Community Endowment, which oversees how $1.25 billion in public sale proceeds is managed and dispersed.

Adam Tucker, director of development for Zimmer, another firm with local ties, said details on the private part of the block, the south side, are not yet available. The parking deck, a north-south divider, will remain. 

The block’s northwest corner is currently leased by NHRMC and includes the Borst building, which at one time was a 1920s-era Chrysler dealership. The building will be demolished to make way for the library-museum.  Historic Wilmington Foundation has vigorously opposed plans to raze the building, arguing it sets a dangerous precedent for local government diminishing distinctive structures within National Register Historic Districts.

Terms at this point require Zimmer to make 5% of its units “for workforce housing purposes” for at least 10 years. So far there have been talks with potential tenants in the hospitality and retail sectors for the block’s south side, Tucker said, and “other mixes of uses that are a little bit outside of the box.”

The county is asking residents to make suggestions for the library-museum building’s name; an online survey will be open for two weeks. 

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