Monday, February 26, 2024

County Commissioners move ‘Project Grace’ forward, making way for combined library and museum

The Cape Fear Museum will be relocated to Downtown Wilmington as a part of New Hanover County's Project Grace (Port City Daily photo/FILE)
The Cape Fear Museum will be relocated to Downtown Wilmington as a part of New Hanover County’s Project Grace (Port City Daily FILE PHOTO)

WILMINGTON — The Cape Fear Museum will have a new place to call home once the development known as Project Grace is finished.

After several months of deliberation and discussion on New Hanover County’s “Project Grace,” the New Hanover Board of Commissioners made its decision on which way the project will go Monday afternoon.

While the vote is a step toward development, it only allowed staff to move forward with seeking proposals. The commission has not decided what the development — which will include a library, a museum and apartments — will look like.

The illustrations provided by the developer are not final designs and the county can make modifications to the plans before a final plan is selected.

“No one should view the schematics as a final design, it’s the potential of putting those things on the site,” County Manager Chris Coudriet said.

County staff made several recommendations for the commissioners to consider when voting to approve the project that include:

  • Maximize the market potential for this site to help support capital investments.
  • Limit structure height to 132 feet, which is allowed by current zoning restrictions.
  • Include a 40,000 square-foot new modern library.
  • Include a new 40,000 square-foot Cape Fear Museum.
  • Include public green space.
  • Ensure size and mass of new structures is consistent with buildings in the vicinity and is pedestrian-friendly.
  • Continue downtown library services during construction.
  • Include a plan to mitigate traffic impacts, including buses visiting the museum and library.
The library system’s main location on Chestnut Street, downtown Wilmington. File photo by Ben Brown.

The board was presented with four different options for development of the block of county-owned property in Downtown Wilmington that currently houses a parking garage and the New Hanover County Library.

The fourth option will cost an approximate $20 million of taxpayer money, and take almost 20 years for the county to pay back; it was by far the costliest for the county. The fourth option also calls for the construction of a new more modern library downtown that will share its space with the museum and apartments, which would be operated by a private company.

The county has left it up for developers to bid on all of the options right now.

The choice to relocate the Cape Fear Museum drew criticism from Wilmington residents, and even prompted a group called ‘Renovate not Relocate the Cape Fear Museum’ to form. The group held its own meeting in September to allow those in attendance to voice their concerns with the costly project.

County commissioners as well as members of the county’s planning staff attended the meeting and even responded to some of the concerns residents had.

Commissioner Rob Zapple had several requests to add to the guidelines for any RFP that would increase the size of the library and the museum to 45,000 square feet.

While some residents have voiced their concerns about the relocation of the museum, there were also some residents concerned with the historical significance of the Belk Building located on the block.

There is no historical designation in the City of Wilmington that would prohibit redevelopment of the old Belk Building, according to Jennifer Rigby, strategy and policy coordinator for New Hanover County.

Rigby also said that revenue generated from the ad valorem tax from the public-private partnership would help provide the funding for the county’s portion of the project.

The fate of the current location of the Cape Fear Museum is still unknown, but one of the guidelines suggested by county staff would help preserve the Cape Fear Museum Park if possible.

The vote passed unanimously and the next step will be for staff to receive proposals from developers who will have to comply with the guidelines set forth Monday night.

Michael Praats can be reached at

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