Saturday, July 20, 2024

With private interest and federal funding, what’s next for Wilmington’s railbed renovation?

The rail line was abandoned in 1990, but city and county plans to revitalize it as a public space have gone nowhere. Could private investment get things moving?

The Wilmington Downtown Lead, abandoned by CSX in 1990, has been considered on and off for years as the site for a public space. Could private investment help tip the scales? (Port City Daily photo | BENJAMIN SCHAHCTMAN)
Looking east from the 5th Avenue bridge in downtown Wilmington. The Wilmington Downtown Lead, abandoned by CSX in 1990, has been considered on and off for years as the site for a public space. Could private investment help tip the scales? (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHAHCTMAN)

WILMINGTON – After decades of disuse, private and federal funding might make this the right time for bringing Wilmington’s downtown railbed back to life – if the City of Wilmington gets on board.

CSX closed down the former Atlantic Coast Railroad line that leads through north Wilmington in 1990. Since then, both the city and county have considered revitalizing the corridor, including the railbed in the  2013 Comprehensive Greenway Plan. However, to date, there has been no concrete plan developed.

The 2013 Greenway plan, published by Wilmington and New Hanover County, identified the rail bed as a 'proposed greenway' - but not specific plan was ever put forward. (Port City Daily Photo | COURTESY CITY OF WILMINGTON)
The 2013 Greenway plan, published by Wilmington and New Hanover County, identified the rail bed as a ‘proposed greenway’ – but no specific plan was ever put forward. (Port City Daily Photo / COURTESY CITY OF WILMINGTON)

Two local developers would like to change that.

Private development 

Dave Spetrino, co-owner of Plantation Building Corp., and Dave Nathans, owner of Urban Building Corp. and the Brooklyn Arts Center, are working on renovating both sides of the railway, on Brunswick and Campbell streets, between North 6th and North 7th streets.

“There’s limited space to walk around in our city. The Riverwalk is our most visited attraction, but it’s also geared towards tourism. That’s great, but energizing the railbed area would benefit those (local) neighborhoods,” Spetrino said.

Spetrino and Nathans envision “energizing” the entire length of the former CSX corridor, from the North 3rd street bridge by Cape Fear Community College to North 10th street. While the two are prepared to dedicate “large private development funds,” the two imagine a revitalized railbed as a larger-scale project.

Spetrino suggested the railbed could serve both as a park for local residents and – with public access every 330 feet – as a walking corridor, connecting parking on the far end of the railway by 10th street to the downtown. Spetrino also suggested the project could help bring redevelopment to the area, including affordable housing.

“If well lit and well maintained, a project like this could really help pull people to the neighborhood – you want to talk about ways to encourage that kind of development, this is it,” Spetrino said.

Unused potential

Nathans, who is working with Spetrino to develop the former Independent Ice Company site on the north side of the corridor pointed to the area’s underutilized potential.

“There’s the potential for a greenway path all along there – walking paths, bike paths – and there’s also that parking lot, which is fully paved and ready to go but no one ever uses it,” Nathans said.

Facing west from the 5th Avenue bridge. The former CS rail corridor leading to an unused parking lot and the CFCC Wilson Center. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

Nathans pointed out that with the addition of the Brooklyn Arts Center and Edward Teach Brewing, parking on the north side is increasingly an issue – something the apparently readymade parking at the western end of the corridor could help alleviate.

So what are Spetrino and Nathans suggesting?

Public funds

The two developers are hoping the city will get involved and turn the railbed into an active urban area.

Back in 2015, the city was still considering making the railbed into a trail. At the time, Senate Bill 174 had just authorized Wilmington and the NCDOT to enter into a lease agreement with CSX’s unused railways. The agreement would be for “interim public recreation.” In other words, this lease would end if CSX wanted to reestablish passenger rail along the Wilmington Downtown Lead.

This to some extent limited the scope of plans for railbed, and plans being considered at the time only included “rail-with-trail” concepts – something that could see continued use, even if the railway returned.

The 2013 Comprehensive Greenway Plan proposed a ‘rail-with-trail’ concept. The expection that CSX would return to downtown placed obvious limitations on the options for turning the rail bed into a public space. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY CITY OF WILMINGTON)

It is possible that anticipating the return of passenger rail has kept the greenway a lower priority for the city, but Spetrino said he does not believe reactivation of the railway by CSX is an issue.

“Elon Musk will build a hyper loop between Wilmington and Raleigh before we see passenger rail on those tracks. Right now, the land is just lying fallow, but there’s tremendous potential.”

Spetrino compared the project to New York City’s High Line, the mile-and-a-half stretch of abandoned elevated rail lines that loomed over the west side of Manhattan for decades until the city overhauled them. Now a public space, the High Line is one of the city’s most popular destinations.

While Spetrino suggested the railbed renovation “wouldn’t be on the same scale as the High Line,” the project would require more than landscaping and a few lights – a more serious financial burden than individual developers could shoulder. However, there is public funding available for something like what Spetrino and Nathans are suggesting.

According to Michael Kozlosky, executive director of the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, there is federal funding available for the project. Kozlosky said WMPO could direct Surface Transportation Block Grant (STBGP-DA) funding to the railbed development, but it would require a 20 percent match from the city of Wilmington.

According to Kozlosky, who is also the transportation planning manager for the city, Wilmington doesn’t currently have any funding identified for the rail corridor.

That means for now, the project depends on city investment. Councilman Paul Lawler said he was waiting for more information about the project – including costs and the benefits to the taxpayer. Mayor Pro-tem Margaret Haynes said she – like Lawler – had heard from Spetrino and Nathans, but that she had’t been involved in any formal council meetings discussing the issue.

However, Spetrino hopes that city’s recent celebration of its successes with the Riverwalk  – including Mayor Bill Saffo declaring a Riverwalk Day – will encourage them to pursue this project.

“Look, there aren’t crowds asking the city – ‘hey, give us access to this space,’ – but then, if you think back to the 90s, there was a small group that wanted access to the Riverwalk. It probably seemed expensive, and like no one would be invested, but now it’s our most visited part of the city.”


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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