Saturday, June 15, 2024

Planning board denies closing Willard St. to build a parking lot, council will have final say

Tribute Companies requested the closure of a section of Willard St., at the intersection of Burnett Boulevard, to create a parking lot for area businesses. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

WILMINGTON — After a public hearing was continued two months in a row, the Wilmington Planning Commission denied a request Wednesday to close off a public road. The move was intended to create more parking for neighboring businesses.

Burnett Blvd Properties LLC submitted an application in September to the city proposing to close two segments of Willard Street, between South 2nd and Park streets, in the South Front District — an urbanized area that’s grown over the last decade.

Tribute Companies, owner of the LLC, operates South Front Apartments in the area and owns neighboring land. Parking becomes difficult on crowded days and this proposal was to help alleviate the congestion. The newly developed private parking lot would improve access to the community for employees and visitors and add additional street frontage to five lots.

A continuance was requested in November and December by the applicant to gather more information about traffic in the area, according to city spokesperson Dylan Lee.

“While there is no set limit on how often someone can ask for a continuance, it is up to the commission whether or not they choose to allow it,” he added.

The board came to a consensus followinb a nearly hour-long presentation and debate: Closing the street was not in the public’s best interest. The right-of-way is city-owned, and board members said it would create an unwanted precedent to close a street for a private purpose.

Interim deputy city attorney Shawn Evans also noted the city cannot be compensated for the street if closed under these circumstances.

“I believe in property rights; this is the property of the City of Wilmington,” board vice chair John Lennon said. “If they were paying fair market value for the property, funds could be allocated to further enhance the public’s ability to benefit from this project but that’s not what we’re talking about.”

Board member Ace Coffer expressed concern over whether there would be assurance Tribute would actually construct a parking lot if the road were to be closed and became private land.

“Another thing I struggle with is the spirit of parking in the UMX,” board member Danny Adams said. “Essentially to me, this is trying to suburbanize an urban part of town.”

The property is zoned urban-mixed use, which doesn’t allow for commercial lots.

City staff said the move would eliminate roughly 20 on-street parking spaces. Attorney Sam Franck, representing the applicant, said that was an “aggressive number,” since there are no lined or identified parking spaces.

Plans for the 66-foot section between South 2nd and Burnett streets would include demolition of an existing dwelling at the Willard and Burnett intersection, to make way for a 51-space surface privately owned parking lot in its place.

Prior to the board’s decision to deny the request, staff had recommended not approving the application because the closure would “reduce interconnectivity between two major roadways” — Front Street and Burnett Boulevard. It would also make access to Greenfield Lake Park more difficult, they noted.

However, traffic engineering firm Davenport said based on the number of vehicles traveling through the area — 81 crossing Burnett Boulevard over a 13-hour period — the closure would not significantly impact the grid network.

Owners of the area’s storefronts submitted to the city letters of support for the move.

Jim and Betsy Knowles, owners of theArtWorks at 200 Willard St., were the hold outs and originally opposed the street closure; however, after meeting with Burnett Blvd Properties LLC in December, the couple is now in favor.

“He felt the street closing would limit access to our location and diminish parking spaces,” Betsy said of her husband, who expressed concerns to the city. “Having met with Mark and Michael Maynard of Tribute Properties, we have the understanding that our patrons will have access to the additional parking created.”

theArtWorks, which would be adjacent to the new lot, has operated out of its South Front District location since 1998. The owners have repurposed its building over the years from car storage, national manufacturing to developing the gallery and studio art complex that exists today in 2012.

Other area businesses — The Second Glass, Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria, Beauty and Blooms, and Satellite Bar and Lounge — would be less impacted by the street closure, as they face 2nd Street. However, the added parking could be to their advantage.

No one spoke publicly in favor or opposition, but two comments were submitted online against the closure.

“It’s an ambitious ask, I get it, asking you to close a section of the grid,” Franck said to the commission. “But it’s a justified ask. It does not align well with a paper analysis but I’m asking you to consider the overall public benefit of increasing parking in this location. We need parking more than we need that section of road.”

He also noted the street is “under-utilized” due to the difficulty drivers have turning onto Burnett. Yet, commissioners were concerned there would be no ingress or egress access to Burnett anymore.

Traffic engineering firm Davenport said there is poor sight distance for vehicles pulling out at the Willard and Burnett intersection. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

Based on Davenport’s findings, there is insufficient sight distance for vehicles pulling onto Burnett from this section of Willard. 

“Closing it shuts down movements and eliminates the potential for collisions,” Davenport traffic engineer Don Bennett told the board Wednesday. “We would anticipate with suburban growth on U.S. 421, volumes will grow over time and that potential for increased traffic will lead to a potential increase in collisions.”

The board made alternative suggestions. Lyle recommended using the parcel where the house is being demolished to create a parking lot. She suggested going to the board of adjustment to ask for relief from setback requirements to do so since Franck noted there would not be enough room to build a significant lot.

Lennon also recommended a one-way street with defined diagonal parking spaces.

“I know well what it’s like to look for parking spaces,” board member Ron Woodruff said. “I’m all for more parking, but I don’t think we have a leg to stand on to make you do anything. If we close the road, that’s what it will be, but I understand the dilemma of not have a through-way.”

If shutting down the street permanently were to be approved, staff recommended attaching certain conditions. A public drainage easement would need to be established for existing pipes and a pedestrian access easement would be needed for the connectivity from Burnett to South 2nd Street. Franck agreed to these concessions.

The final decision will now go before the city council next month. If approved, there’s a two-step process for council to close a road, involving multiple public hearings.

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