Sunday, July 21, 2024

Updated rail trail route includes access to planned Northside grocery store

The Downtown Rail Trail is in the design phase and officials have altered its original route to be more direct due to issues with CSX. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — A long-awaited multi-use path connecting neighborhoods to downtown has an amended plan — one that will allow residents to more easily access the new grocery store planned for the Northside community.

Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization deputy director Abby Lorenzo provided the Wilmington City Council with an update on the plans at its Monday agenda briefing.

READ MORE: NCDOT awards $680K for phase one of Wilmington Rail Trail

Nearly a year ago, the city received $680,000 from WMPO Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021. It required no local match and was 100% federally funded.

Its purpose is to encourage multimodal travel, increase connectivity and repurpose what was once a fundamental element to the city — passenger rail. The latter is planned to return, though years down the road.

A master plan was completed in 2020 but a route was updated once design work began in 2022 due to CSX regulations. The company does not allow for private or public bike and pedestrian paths to parallel active tracks. 

As a result, the trail will be more direct and has been reduced from 5.9 miles to 3.5 miles long. Phase one decreased from 2.2. miles to 1.7.

The greenway path, which connects to the Riverwalk, once went from Third Street north to McRae Street behind Dorothy B Johnson Elementary School. Now, it goes in front of the school and continues straight to the Love Grove community, northeast to One Tree Hill Way. It ends near the Love Grove Bridge behind Screen Gems Studios. 

From 10th Street to the Love Grove Memorial Bridge, the trail will cross CSX tracks at King Street. CSX is currently working to upgrade its rail crossings, with the King Street location being one of them.

“We are working to ensure our needs for crossing at this location can be incorporated into their current design, going to construction in another year,” Lorenzo said.

Lorenzo said the goal is to reactivate unused space in the Northside community and provide a connection to downtown via bikes or by foot.

“[It] will serve as a safe transportation facility to those without access to a personal vehicle,” she added.

Lorenzo added the new alignment will run alongside the future Northside grocery store location, providing increased access to residents.

READ MORE: County accepts city land donation for Northside grocery store

The Northside Food Co-op has partnered with New Hanover County to construct a 6,000-square-foot market with access to affordable, fresh foods. The 905 North 10th St. building will fill a void in the community, considered a food desert by the USDA.

“[Local government] has to care for all their neighborhoods and make sure all basic needs are met and one of those is access to food,” Northside Food Coop project manager Cierra Washington told Port City Daily in the fall. “When you look at different neighborhoods and look at the deficits, look at poverty, crime, violence, those are all symptoms, not root causes. The root causes are not having a grocery store and access to food.”

Upon completion of all three phases, the trail will be 3.5 miles long. (Courtesy/WMPO)

The tweaks made to the original rail trail design came after 11 meetings with stakeholders. The downtown trail was first identified 10 years ago in the Wilmington Comprehensive Greenway Plan. It was the number one priority project in that plan, Lorenzo said.

In 2015, the city secured legislation that allows for the city to lease the NCDOT rail-owned corridor for the establishment of a trail. Five years later, a master plan was developed with Friends of the Rail Trail.

The first half of the trail, from Third to Eighth streets, also coincides with NCDOT’s corridor. WMPO and NCDOT staff have been collaborating on the design of this portion of the trail to ensure it will complement future designs for passenger rail.

“Coordination is ongoing as to the exact location,” Lorenzo said.

WMPO and NCDOT’s Rail Division staff have been meeting bi-monthly to ensure the state-owned corridor can function as both a multi-use pedestrian path and a track for passenger rail.

Council member Charlie Rivenbark questioned if the trail will continue once passenger rail returns. Mayor Bill Saffo expressed the same worry that once the trail is in place and NCDOT begins discussing bringing back rail, the public will push back.

“There will probably be outcry, ‘Oh no we don’t want a train,’ when all along it was supposed to come,” Saffo said. “And then NCDOT says, ‘OK. We won’t do it because there’s no consensus.”

The trail may need to close temporarily while under construction for NCDOT’s rail portion, Lorenzo said, but the ultimate goal is to ensure the two co-exist.

“NCDOT Rail is very motivated to make sure our design complements their future rail design,” Lorenzo confirmed.

WMPO staff is visiting NCDOT staff in Raleigh later this week to discuss.

The only other “impediment” Lorenzo identified, as asked by Saffo, was a brownfields site near the Love Grove neighborhood that used to be a landfill.

She explained to council NCDEQ has identified it with plans to remediate within five to seven years. Timing could impact the trail’s construction schedule.

“Ideally we would not want to make the investment to build a trail through an area that’s going to be remediated but we intend to work with [NCDEQ] to coordinate,” Lorenzo said.

The next step is to solicit feedback from the community on the updated alignment later in the year, specifically with the Love Grove neighborhood.

Following, WMPO will work toward more advanced engineering design, to include proposed grading, drainage and utility relocation and property acquisition. Lorenzo said the goal is for design to be done in the next year.

The project still needs to be funded for construction.

“There are a number of capital projects ahead of this project in the pipeline that will require resources,” Lorenzo told Port City Daily.

Phase two will run from Archie Blue Park down to Bullock Park in front of Snipes Elementary School; phase three will complete that southward path to Forest Hills Elementary School. Once complete, the trail will connect to the River to Sea Bikeway through shared lane-markings and sidewalks on Colonial Drive to Park Avenue.

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