WILMINGTON—It has been one year since the construction deadline passed for public bathrooms on the Wilmington Riverwalk. It appears a pre-existing contractual agreement may stall them even longer — a problem that appears to now belong solely to the city.
Last Spring, Wilmington City Council signed an agreement with the Northern Riverfront Marina and Hotel (NRMH) to allow the BlackFinn Ameripub and Vida Cantina restaurants to open in time for the Wells Fargo Championship. In exchange for modifying the development agreement with the city, NRMH agreed to construct temporary public bathrooms within 90 days, and permanent public bathrooms within three years.
The deadline for those temporary bathrooms passed in July of last year. Six months later, little progress had been made and city officials and members of council struggled to provide an explanation.
According to Charles Schoninger, who has developed much of the Riverwalk and owns NRMH, he purchased temporary bathrooms but ran into inspection issues with the county. Those bathrooms are currently located on his property, which includes Pier 33, the Port City Marina, and Marina Grill. Schoninger has kept the bathrooms at BlackFinn Ameripub, later reopened as Marina Grill, open to the public — a concession to his agreement, but not one that satisfies the city’s requirements.
A full year later, Schoninger said the delay isn’t due to county inspection, it’s due to the authority given to PPD over the development of the northern riverfront area.
PPD’s ‘Master Site Plan’
PPD has architectural covenants – clauses in property deeds that give PPD final say in the design of surrounding properties – dating back to 2005. When PPD purchased land from the Almont Shipping company to build its headquarters, the pharmaceutical research company was granted covenants over most of Almont’s former property. In PPD’s land deed, this is referred to as its “Master Site Plan.”
“More than a decade ago, PPD helped lead the revitalization of northern downtown with the purchase of an approximately 8-acre tract of land from Almont Shipping Company and the construction of its worldwide headquarters. As part of the land acquisition, Almont granted PPD customary rights relating to the development of the surrounding property. These rights are a matter of public record and are intended to protect PPD’s significant investment in the northern downtown area. Over the years, we have worked closely with neighboring developers and the City of Wilmington in support of the development of this area and will continue to do so,” according to a PPD spokesperson.
The surrounding area includes “roughly from the Isabell Holmes Bridge to about where the Convention Center is now,” according to City Manager Sterling Cheatham. Restrictions in the deeds to those properties supported Cheatham’s assessment.
Cheatham was the city manager in 2005, when Wilmington and New Hanover County negotiated a $2.1 incentive plan for PPD. The same year, Wilmington purchased land from PPD to build its convention center.
When the convention center tract and other surrounding property, including NRMH’s land, were sold, PPD retained those architectural covenants and had the right to review – and object to – any construction. The covenants are broad, covering everything from landscaping and signage to building design and business type.
When PPD learned that Schoninger was going to install public restrooms, they blocked the move.
“A private developer proposed locating permanent public restrooms near an important entrance to our building and along a pedestrian walkway leading from our building to the neighboring restaurants and Riverwalk. PPD agrees there should be public restrooms available for people using the Riverwalk and the future park but does not believe the proposed location was the best alternative and requested that other locations be considered,” PPD’s spokesperson said.
So, who will build the public bathrooms?
Schoninger said that, unable to appease PPD by moving the bathrooms different location, he is paying the $250,000 stipulated in his deal with the city. Schoninger and fellow developer Todd Saieed, CEO of Dewitt Carolinas, will both pay $125,000 and transfer the obligation to build temporary bathrooms to the city.
When asked if the city will now build public bathrooms, Cheatham did not directly answer, saying only, “There has been no amendment to the city’s current agreement with NRMH at this time.”
In August last year, Councilman Kevin O’Grady acknowledged that the city could be responsible for building bathrooms if NRMH paid the estimated construction cost, but said that the idea of the agreement was to ensure NRMH – not Wilmington – built them.
“The bathrooms will be built, and they will be built soon,” O’Grady said at the time. “The point of the agreement isn’t for the city to build bathrooms, the point of the agreement of the agreement is to get (NRMH) to build the bathrooms, which they will.”
It remains unclear what the city’s timeline for building the public bathrooms will be, or how it will deal with PPD’s architectural covenants.
Asked if the city had alternate site plans for public bathrooms, Cheatham again did not directly respond, instead saying, “public bathrooms downtown, particularly the northern downtown, remain a priority for the city and we will continue to work toward that.”
City Council and Mayor Bill Saffo were invited to comment on this story on Tuesday, as of publication no comments were received.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.