Sunday, June 23, 2024

City acquires federal property for $1.2M to establish public park

The city approved the purchase of 1.6 acres at 201 N. Water St. Tuesday to reestablish a public park and connect to the remaining Riverwalk. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

WILMINGTON — After years of trying to snag property along the Cape Fear River, the city finally purchased 1.6 acres previously used by the U.S. Coast Guard to round out Waterfront Park and expand the Riverwalk.

READ MORE: $3M fix: Portion of riverwalk built in 2014 is sinking, needs repairs

At Tuesday’s meeting, the city council voted 6-1 (Kevin Spears dissenting) to approve the purchase of 201 N. Water St. for $1.2 million, a price negotiated down from $1.9 million offered by the feds in May.

Kara Spencer, assistant to the city manager for legislative affairs, told council Rep. David Rouzer was influential in helping to solidify the deal. He facilitated on a federal level the connection between the U.S. Coast Guard’s general services administration and the city.

“We negotiated with the GSA at length based on considerations of short-term and long-term costs,” Spencer said.

The cost was reduced by $668,500, or 35%.

The $1.2 million includes an additional $20,000 for closing costs, plus another $884,000 will be used toward more repairs on the property’s bulkhead. 

In May 2019, the Coast Guard began repairs on the bulkhead, damage resulting from 2016 Storm Hermine, underneath Riverfront Park with $6.7 million secured by Rep. Rouzer. The city assisted and work was completed in 2022.

However, more work still needs to be done, including improvements for the northernmost 400 feet of bulkhead wall, north of Princess Street, removing steel corrosion, fixing front sheet pile holes and reinforcing weak areas, backfilling voids behind the wall and repairing the walking surface. 

Design and construction is anticipated to be completed within one year, city spokesperson Jerod Patterson told Port City Daily.

“That schedule will be refined as the design progresses,” he said.

The Water Street location was a prior U.S. Coast Guard mooring site, vacated in May 2020; however, the federal entity retained a presence there through August 2022. The city first expressed interest in the property in October 2020.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Spears was frustrated at the cost regardless of the negotiated savings. He said the city had been in talks with the Coast Guard to receive the land for free or for $1.

“I think I’ve expressed on at least on occasion what we’re being accused of and what we’re starting to look like with some of the acquisitions we’re making,” Spears said to his fellow members. “It’d be great if the Coast Guard gave it to us, and I could actually see why it’s important for us to gain control, but not at the cost of $1.2 million.”

He said the city is starting to look like “Monopoly” downtown with all its property purchases. 

It recently closed on the downtown North Front Street campus, formerly owned by Thermo Fisher, for $68 million.

“When are we gonna stop?” Spears asked. “We can’t resist. … Everything is a huge piece of this puzzle we’re trying to finish, but when will we finish?”

Mayor Bill Saffo explained the process for disposal of federal property, by general statute, complicated the Coast Guard from simply gifting the area. The Coast Guard general administration service is required to negotiate a sale representing fair market value.

The city also explored the possibility of a public benefit conveyance — another way to dispose of surplus federal property — instead of a direct sale to acquire the property, but learned park and recreation purposes are not allowed under that legislation.

Saffo touted the importance of owning the land, an essential connection to the 2-mile scenic Riverwalk along Water Street downtown. The public walkway was constructed in 2014 and the city has doled out nearly $33 million on building and preservation since, according to prior PCD reporting.

“This is a public benefit for the entire community, all citizens that come and move here, live here and visit here, I do think it will be something well done,” he said.

The mayor also warned if the city had not bought it, someone else would and could put a commercial building on the site.

“A lot of citizens would be outraged by that,” Saffo said. “And mess up what we think is a magnificent promenade that has been built upon by many city councils and mayors.”

Wilmington owned the southern portion of the property for decades and operated it as a park through a license with the U.S. Coast Guard. Buying the land allows the city to reestablish a public park, while also connecting to the Riverwalk.

Saffo said Tuesday the city plans to engage the community for feedback on how they would like the park developed and what they’d like to see there.

The city estimates it has brought in $250 million worth of riverfront development that has direct access to the riverwalk, which has landed on polls as one of the top three riverwalks nationally 

Future plans will be limited, though, due to a historic preservation covenant placed on the deed by the North Carolina State Preservation Historic Office. This resulted in an additional delay in acquiring the area, located within Wilmington’s Historic District, Patterson told Port City Daily.

The agreement ensures nearby resources — the National Register federal courthouse still undergoing renovations from damage incurred by Hurricane Florence in 2018, and Battleship North Carolina — will not be adversely impacted.

According to internal emails obtained by PCD, the U.S. Coast Guard and city have agreed to protect the historical integrity of the property moving forward. The conservation agreement includes limiting any future building height to 25 feet with a 15-foot setback along the eastern boundary of the property.

The city intends to close on the Water Street property within 60 days and finalize designs for the bulkhead repairs.

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