Wednesday, June 19, 2024

4 options to extend downtown’s Riverwalk, funding not yet available

There are four options for extending the city’s downtown Riverwalk past the Isabel Holmes Bridge but funding is not yet available. (Port City Daily/file)

WILMINGTON — It could cost the city up to $10 million to extend its downtown Riverwalk a quarter-to-a-half-mile farther north, according to a recent feasibility study conducted.

READ MORE: Riverwalk extension could lead to brewery and restaurant, more development on north end downtown

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

Though money isn’t yet secured to make it a reality, at least one business owner is willing to contribute. 

Off the Hook Yacht Sales owner Jason Ruegg already chipped in $20,000 to help the city pay for the study, which was completed in June. The city spent $78,175 — prices increased from $50,000 once bid out last October — to engage an engineering firm to explore the possibility of extending the riverwalk past its current termination at Sawmill Point apartments on Nunn Street. The study looked at extending it to Jel Wade Drive, past Cape Fear Marina.

Right now, the extension is an unfunded, unprogrammed capital improvement project on the city’s radar. City manager Tony Caudle told council at Monday’s agenda briefing coordinating with property owners north of the Isabel Holmes Bridge is a possibility, including Ruegg.

When it comes to future construction, Ruegg said he’s willing to offer up more money to see the plan through. Off the Hook’s property at 1701 Jel Wade Drive is just north of the Isabel Holmes Bridge and would benefit from an extension. As a result Ruegg reached out to the city about the possibility. He specifically has an interest as he envisions future development next to Cape Fear Marina for a future brewery and restaurant., but it hinges on the riverwalk extension, he told Port City Daily last year.

Ruegg also told Port City Daily Thursday he owns a parcel of land at 504 Cornelius Harnett Drive, next to Carolina Coastal Marine, that he would be willing to donate, which he said would suit parking needs for people to access the riverwalk.

“We could run a sidewalk right to the riverwalk from here,” he said. “We were going to use it for boat storage, but it would work great for riverwalk parking.”

Plans for extending the 1.7 mile-Riverwalk have been in the works for over a year. Last August, the city hired Wetherill Engineering to perform a feasibility study. The firm conducted an environmental assessment, surveyed the land, looked at utility locations and trail design, as well as assessed alignments, hydraulics, structural details, geotechnical aspects, stakeholder involvement and construction costs.

The results revealed four possible alignments ranging in length from 1,400 square feet up to 2,200 square feet. It would expand the riverwalk under the Isabel Holmes Bridge to Jel Wade Drive off Cornelius Harnett Drive.

Alignment option one would be the longest and most expensive, estimated at $8 million to $10 million, based on the decking type — timber, composite or concrete. The extension would consist of a 12-foot-wide deck matching the existing riverwalk standards.

It would follow the traditional path of the existing boardwalk to provide the best views of the Cape Fear River, assistant director of community services Sally Thigpen told council Monday.

She also said this path would not impact any wetlands or North Carolina Department of Transportation’s mitigation sites. The only downside is the route crosses Cape Fear Marina’s loading area, which could be problematic for clearance of vessels.

The other three paths would cost roughly $5 million to $7 million.

Ruegg, also owner of Cape Fear Marina, favors alignment two. It’s 1,450 feet long and has a traditional path positioning with the existing riverwalk; however, before reaching the marina, it would cut back south to Cornelius Harnett Drive. This version would allow for the most clearance and reduce the impact to the marina. 

Wetherill recommends alignments one or two.

Alignments three and four are the shortest and could potentially pass through marshlands, wetlands and impact NCDOT’s mitigation sites. Views and visibility would be less preferable as well. However, the alignments could offer educational opportunities based on their locations, Thigpen said Monday.

Regardless of the chosen route, Thigpen mentioned the riverwalk extension would also add a connection to the Thomas and Willie Jervay Freedom Walk. It traverses CSX property, possibly complicating matters.

 “But we believe [it] could be accomplished,” she said at the meeting.

The added cost would be $1.1 million for the connection, linking the Northside neighborhoods to downtown forsafe, accessible pedestrian routes.

There also would be supplemental costs for the design and construction management, right-of-way acquisition, security cameras and more, Thigpen told council. The study didn’t cover the financial reach in these areas; estimates would not become available until the project were bid out. 

The city has been in conversations with Ruegg, as well as NCDOT — owner of the Isabel Holmes Bridge — CSX and the owner of Harnett’s Landing north of the bridge, as all stakeholders would be impacted in some way.

The city’s comprehensive plan identifies the property for the extension as an “important catalyst to achieve inner-city revitalization,” Thigpen said. The project could spur additional economic growth north of the Isabel Holmes Bridge

The city estimates it has brought in $250 million worth of riverfront development that has direct access to the riverwalk. Additional commercial redevelopment opportunities are available as the riverwalk extends farther north.

Mayor Bill Saffo inquired to city staff if there are any grant opportunities available to help offset some of the cost of a riverwalk extension. 

“Grant opportunities are available,” Caudle said. “Grants would not come near covering the cost but could be used to offset it a bit.”

He also said grants have not been used in the past to phase in portions of the Riverwalk; the city has contributed up to $33 million on construction and preservation to date. Planning for the Riverwalk construction started in the 1980s and wrapped in 2017 just south of the Isabel Holmes Bridge. 

The riverwalk is also a tourism attractor for the city. It was ranked second and third best riverwalk nationally in 2021 and 2022 by USA Today. In 2015, it came in first place. This year Wilmington remained in the top 10 but fell to number seven.

For other funding options, Caudle mentioned reaching out to the North Carolina General Assembly.

“The General Assembly has been a bit more liberal in handing out individual grants for municipalities and counties,” Caudle said. “This might be an opportunity, especially with the overall large cost.”

According to Thigpen, the feasibility study’s results would be relevant in a few years, as the city procures funding. 

“The cost would be impacted, depending on the length of time, but unless there are dramatic changes in terms of the environmental and geotechnical [reviews], it would be pretty solid,” she told council.

First the city needs to identify a funding strategy and coordinate with adjacent property owners. The chosen alignment will be dependent on the outcome of the design process and cost, city spokesperson Lauren Edwards said.

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