WILMINGTON — The old Thomas Grocery building doesn’t appear to be much now, with its deteriorated floors, molded ceilings and massive structural damage, but Wilmington Urban Metropolitan Area Planning Committee (WMPO) has a vision for its future.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), Friends of the Wilmington Rail Trail and the Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County are partnering to revitalize the historic building at 525 N. 4th St. as the future home of WMPO. The project is part of a long-term master plan in conjunction with the City of Wilmington.
WMPO’s 12-person staff currently conducts operations out of 3,500 square feet at 305 Chestnut St., in proximity to other city offices. Its new home will provide 7,000-square feet in the Brooklyn Arts District, a property deeded to the city by NCDOT in 2017.
The renovation of the building is a small piece of the impending Wilmington Multi-Modal Transportation Center (WMTC). The properties encompassing Campbell, Hanover, 3rd and 4th streets, deemed the Gulch Corridor, are slated to serve as the city’s transportation hub.
“The vision started back in late 1990s for a multi-modal center,” WMPO executive director Mike Kozlosky said.
The site was selected after studies were completed in 2005.
The WMTC will provide improved facilities and convenience for public transportation users by combining Wave Transit, the downtown trolley and the inter-city buses serviced by Greyhound. It will also be the future site for a passenger train station.
NCDOT requires that the property is used for transportation purposes, making WMPO a fit, Kozlosky said.
The use of the building wasn’t set in stone when the city obtained ownership. WMPO wanted to create a branding separate from the city.
A regional planning agency, WMPO serves seven municipalities, including all of New Hanover County and parts of Brunswick and Pender counties. Recent projects the WMPO board designated direct attributable (DA) funds to the Leland Old Fayetteville Road project and sidewalk construction at Wrightsville Beach’s Coral Road.
“We’re a little unique agency in that we’re federally funded and federally designated, but we’re a hosted organization and housed at the City of Wilmington,” Kozlosky explained.
A few years ago, Kozlosky met with city leadership, including then-city manager Sterling Cheatham, to pitch the idea of renovating the building for WMPO.
The layout includes space for a training facility, as well as a board room to host monthly meetings. WMPO’s Board comprises 12 elected officials and one appointed official from the N.C. Board of Transportation. The board currently meets separate from its offices in a conference room at 320 Chestnut St., so the operations will be able to converge in one area.
Since owning the abandoned property, the city has performed some maintenance and stabilization, which included installing a new roof. When 2018’s Hurricane Florence hit, the parapet (protective wall along the edge of the roof) collapsed and had to be stabilized again to prevent water intrusion.
Bricks from the collapse are still sitting in piles on site, and Kozlosky said there are plans to incorporate them into the rebuild.
Funding for the building will come from WMPO’s funds.
As a Transportation Management Area designated by the Secretary of Transportation, WMPO receives $3 million annually from the federal Surface Transportation Black Grant Program to dole out for regional projects. The City of Wilmington is applying for the money to rehab the building and will provide a 20% match.
The overall cost estimate is not yet determined, as bids are out now for construction. The board plans to award the bid in January and begin work in the first quarter of 2022. WMPO hopes to move in by early 2023.
Since federal money is involved, the organization had to receive approval from the State Historic Preservation Office on the design for the building to ensure historic elements were included. The plan is to bring the exterior façade back to its original style to fit in with the surrounding area, which includes the historic renovated Edward Teach Brewery and the Brooklyn Arts Center, both located across the street from WMPO’s future offices.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” Kozlosky said. “The floors are coming out, roof is coming off. It’s going to be a very large construction project.”
The grand scope of the multi-modal center is to “promote and encourage multimodal travel as a priority for the City of Wilmington,” according to its master plan.
“This will really function as an overall transportation hub for the multimodal transportation in the region,” Kozlosky explained. “This whole area is transitioning.”
NCDOT purchased and deeded properties in the Northside neighborhood to the city in 2017. The city subsequently transferred ownership of the transit piece to the Cape Fear Public Transit Authority, which opened Padgett Station at 520 N. 3rd St. in January 2020. This hub for Wave Transit was chosen for its proximity to Martin Luther King Jr. Expressway and ease of access and convenience for passengers.
The center will also connect to the proposed Wilmington Rail Trail, a downtown bicycle-pedestrian trail, which would be located adjacent to Padgett Station. It would revitalize the old unused rail corridor to be 12 feet wide and run about half a mile between McRae and Third streets.
WMPO is funding the design phase for the trail, to stretch from Third Street out to Archie Blue Park (1601 Wynnwood St.). The city applied for WMPO’s Coronavirus Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding to cover the $680,000 design costs. It should be complete by the end of 2023.
“It’s envisioned that as a subsequent phase, the city will ask for monies to construct the improvements once the design is complete,” Kozlosky said. “At that point, the city will have to provide a 20% match.”
Based on the Wilmington Rail Trail Master Plan, total construction costs are estimated at roughly $5.4 million, which will be secured using federal, state and local funds.
Abandoned rail tracks that run through the Northsideare part of what used to be the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad, a segment of the Atlantic Coast Line connecting Wilmington to the East Coast across 9,800 miles. The headquarters for the railroad moved out in 1955 and rail traffic began to decline. ACL officially closed in 1970.
“The piece of track that was removed was from Wallace to Castle Hayne, and to re-establish service, we would need to re-establish rail in that corridor,” Kozlosky said. “This is a priority of our MPO board.”
NCDOT and Cape Fear Community College have signed a Memorandum of Understanding, so the college has first dibs on planning the construction of the rail station building. The first floor would be retained for passenger rail service and the college can incorporate classrooms and offices on the second floor.
NCDOT will be responsible for funding and planning of the future commuter rail component.
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