Saturday, January 28, 2023

Castle St. building to come down, adds to dwindling list of historic resources citywide

The building at 604 Castle St., a contributing historic resource based on its age, will be demolished to make way for apartments, if approved by the city. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

WILMINGTON — A new development requires the demolition of a contributing historic resource in Wilmington. It will add to the list of growing structures that have recently been torn down or at risk of being lost in the Wilmington Historic District.

The former home to Luna Caffé and two now-vacant buildings on Castle Street are slated to be knocked down and the property replaced with 30 apartment units. It is one of many defined by the Historic Wilmington Foundation as “historic.”

“Everybody has a different definition of what it means to be historic,” HWF director Travis Gilbert said. “Here, one of the many ways we define if a property is historic or not is if it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.”

If listed on the registry, it contributes to the city’s overall designation as a historic district. The 600 block of Castle Street was part of the original downtown historic district. The 700 block was added in the early 2000s, Gilbert explained.

The 604 Castle St. building proposed for demolition is a 1940s commercial building that, based on records, Gilbert said has been a commercial property since the turn of the 20th century.

“It not only has historic significance but adds integrity and character to the Wilmington Historic District,” Gilbert said.

He added it’s one of the many structures being lost in “dry pond” — as the Castle Street area was often referred to in the past.

“There are many contributing resources in the 600 and 700 blocks of Castle that have seriously deteriorated or have been lost due to development, natural disasters or so forth,” Gilbert said.

Within the 500, 600 and 700 blocks of Castle, three buildings are now gone (714, 720 and an address not listed in between). 618 is in the process of demolition, and three others — 604, 606 and 606 1/2 — are at risk of being destroyed.

“It’s not unique to Dry Pond or Castle Street,” Gilbert said. “We’re seeing it all across the Wilmington National Historic District.”

Most have been torn down either due to damage from storms or replaced by new development.

Federally recognized historic districts face fewer regulations than local historic districts, according to HWF, making them less protected. The local district falls under the jurisdiction of the city’s seven-member Historic Preservation Commission. The committee oversees design requests in the district, which are required for exterior alterations to properties within the city’s historic limits. The bounds run from the Cape Fear River to about 8th Street, east to Church Street and west to right before Campbell.

The National Register District, falling under HWF’s jurisdiction, covers more ground countywide, including suburban neighborhoods Brookwood, Carolina Place, Westbrook Admore, Masonboro Sound Road, Market Street Mansion, and Sunset Park.

With the demoing of another contributing resource, the city’s overall historic district will continue to shrink.

“Think of them as tally marks,” Gilbert said. “With enough contributing in any area, it creates a National Register Historic District. … [P]oke holes in the fabric of the neighborhood, eventually you erase enough, and that block could become ineligible.”

There is no “magic number,” Gilbert confirmed, as to how many buildings it would take to lose historic district status. It would require an architectural survey at the request of the city to update the district lines and verify the number of standing buildings.

The one tool organizations such as HWF had to delay or halt the demolition of historic buildings is no longer available. City ordinance once regulated allowance for a “stay of demolition.” It gave historic agencies up to 180 days to find other solutions than destroying buildings. When the North Carolina state statute no longer required municipalities to offer a stay of demolition, the City of Wilmington updated its unified development ordinance in December 2021 to follow suit.

“It was like hitting pause for stakeholders to collaborate and explore if there are any alternatives to demolition,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert explained municipalities must have state-enabling legislation for many regulations. He also said HWF is working to revert the law back.

Regulations in the historic district help preserve the historic architecture and fabric of the neighborhoods, city spokesperson Dylan Lee explained, “providing a sense of place and positive experience for residents and visitors.”

Structures have been relocated and redeveloped, including 310 Bladen Street, which was donated by a developer and moved to the corner of Swann and North 4th street to become a local restaurant.

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“The last case scenario is to salvage irreplaceable historic resources in these buildings,” Gilbert said. “And have them live on in architectural salvage. It’s a last measure we have to try to preserve history.”

Part of HWF’s mission is to deconstruct old buildings slated to be torn down and salvage wood, doors, windows and other architectural elements. The 60-plus-year-old materials are then sold to community members and used in rehab projects. Legacy Architectural Salvage is the brick-and-mortar location, 1831-B Dawson St., to purchase items, located in the same building as Stevens Ace Hardware.

Protecting buildings intact in their entirety, though, is the preferred choice.

“Our mission is to promote historic preservation in our city,” Gilbert said. “However, I am encouraged by the continued relevance and excitement on Castle Street and Dry Pond.”

Since the city ordinance no longer allows for stay of demolition, HWF doesn’t have any legal standing, and thus advocates for preservation and finding alternative solutions to demolition if possible.

Keeping an historic district intact opens the door to grant funding from the state and local governments. Buildings within the National Register Districts can also receive state and federal tax credits.

For example, a 20% income tax credit is available for the renovation or rehab of income-producing properties from the federal government. Up to 15% is offered by the state for owner-occupied properties. It could save homeowners up to $22,500. 

Within HWF’s coverage area, 169 projects have received federal or state tax credits since 1976, representing more than $42 million in private investments for historic buildings.

According to Lee, the city has not lost any funding due to the fewer contributing historic resources. However the amount of grant funding received could diminish. He also said when it comes to approving development, the historic nature is taken into consideration depending on the situation.

“Each building and project is different,” Lee said. 

The city’s technical review committee is expected to go over the site plans for the Castle Street development project on Jan. 5. It will then have to go to the planning board 

Developers RGC Castle Street LLC purchased 604, 606 and 606 1/2 for $2.25 million in October 2019. The move prompted the coffee shop Luna Caffé to relocate, knowing the building was soon to come down. Decades of Decor, at 606 Castle St., moved out in December 2021.

6,405 feet of building is planned for demolition, along with 2,635 square feet of asphalt to make way for a mixed-use project.

Massachusetts-based RGC submitted plans to the TRC committee Nov. 30 for what is being referred to as “The 606.” Two buildings are slated for construction including a four-story structure to fit 24 apartments. Twelve will be one-bedroom units, six will be two bedrooms and six are noted as three-bedroom units.

Site plans show a 720 square-foot lobby and 1,140 square feet of retail on the first floor.

RGC plans to construct another three-story building to house six more two-bedroom apartments behind the existing Urban Oasis apartments.

This article has been updated to change the stay of demolition from 365 days to 180 days. Port City Daily regrets this error.


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