Friday, February 3, 2023

After nearly 50 years, Wilmington ends urban renewal ‘protections’ for Northside development

The programs, dating back to the early 1960s, were aimed at combating urban blight. But their goals were a suburban style of city planning that officials say doesn't make sense anymore.

WILMINGTON — Wilmington is officially closing the book on the decades-old urban renewal programs aimed at rescuing the Northside area of Wilmington from widespread the dilapidation and deterioration known as blight. It’s a sign of the city’s increasing desire to see the spread of mixed-use development which, in some ways, is a throwback to a century-old planning style.

Earlier this month, Wilmington City Council approved a “Resolution Terminating the Declaration of Regulations and Controls of the Redevelopment Commission.” The motion, part of the consent agenda, passed quickly at the beginning of the council meeting. Blink and you missed it, but it actually represented a significant milestone for the city.

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According to Wilmington Planning Director Glenn Harbeck, the Redevelopment Commission – which still exists on paper, and can be reactivated if needed – took the reigns of urban development in the 1960s and 1970s, but the program isn’t needed anymore. As the resolution states, the plans for the area were completed by the early 1980s and the affected properties “no longer require the protections” that were created nearly fifty years ago.

“It’s an old, old program and all good things have to come to an end,” Harbeck said. “The development happening in the 50s and 60s was quite a bit different than what’s happening in this day and time. The old provisions from the plan from the late 60s and early 70s just aren’t relevant anymore.”

The Redevelopment Commission created in the early 1960s and in 1961 was given oversight of several areas in the Northside area, including the area immediately around the former Almont Shipping Company, that is now occupied by PPD, several mixed-use developments, and the city’s North Water Front Park.

It also covered residential and commercial areas around North Fourth Street — what is now being called the Brooklyn Arts District. By 1972, the commission was also in charge of “Five Points,” the residential area of Northside between Brunswick and Bess, McRae and Sixth streets.

Urban renewal and suburbanization

In the early 1960s, the City of Wilmington worked to renovate what is now the northern central business district. At the time, post-war suburban flight had wreaked havoc on the heart of the city. (Port City Daily photo / Courtesy of City of Wilmington)
In the early 1960s, the City of Wilmington worked to renovate what is now the northern central business district. At the time, post-war suburban flight had wreaked havoc on the heart of the city. (Port City Daily photo / Courtesy of City of Wilmington)

The Commission was created alongside similar bodies in many other urban areas. In North Carolina, state statute dictated the extent of “blight,” the percentage of buildings in irreparably bad condition, that justified a redevelopment plan. The Commission was authorized to tear down entire blocks, and oversee rebuilding.

“People were leaving cities in droves for the suburbs after World War II, and urban renewal – as it was called – was intended to remove blight and bring back investment in our inner cities, with very mixed results in many cities,” Harbeck said.

The regulations for the Five Points area were aimed at creating a very suburban kind of development, with regulations mandating greenspace – that is, front and back yards – and limiting buildings to about a third of a parcel’s total area. There were also restrictions on commercial uses. Small businesses like barber shops and convenience stores were allowed, but not larger businesses like grocery stores.

For better or worse, the result was to remove residential uses from commercial uses, a suburbanized planning philosophy essentially predicated on owning a car.

“The attitude in the early 60s was separation of uses. We were still coming out of the industrial revolution mentality and people felt, ‘oh gosh, I don’t want to live next to were the smoke-belching manufacturing factory is, I don’t want to live where rampant commercialization is taking over our major arterial’ – that was the attitude of the early 60s,” Harbeck said.

The return to the city movement

The 1972 urban renewal plan for the "Five Points" neighborhood of Northside included restrictions and regulations aimed at creating a suburban feel. (Port City Daily photo / Courtesy City of Wilmington)
The 1972 urban renewal plan for the “Five Points” neighborhood of Northside included restrictions and regulations aimed at creating a suburban feel. (Port City Daily photo / Courtesy City of Wilmington)

Fifty years later, the city no longer sees the kind of blight that once affected the area, the kind of disrepair that rendered entire blocks uninhabitable.

“Are there buildings that need some attention? Of course, but there’s really no blight left in the original redevelopment area, to my knowledge,” Harbeck said.

So, what changed?

In many ways, it has less to do with planning ordinances and more to do with the culture.

“What we have now is this amazing return to the city movement that I never thought I’d see in my lifetime – for my entire career as a city planner people were leaving the city, to go live in the suburbs. And now we’re seeing reverse-migration,” Harbeck said.

The city is now seeing Baby Boomers scaling down, looking for properties with less maintenance, according to Harbeck.

“Then, of course, you got your millennials, who want to live where the action is, so to speak,” Harbeck added.

The desire is not just to live in a residential area near a commercial zone, Harbeck said, but a desire to see the two uses combined.

Harbeck said the city is currently reworking its 34-year-old land use code to catch up with the trends, but, perhaps ironically, it’s not a new planning style. If anything, it’s throwback to the end of the 19th Century.

“Now we’ve kind of rediscovered what true mixed-use development was like in the early 1900s before the advent of the automobile. People are getting back to it. They want to live near the corner store, they want to live conveniently near the sit-down restaurant. That’s what people like,” Hardbeck said.

Re-redevelopment

Since the 2016 park bond was introduced to fund the North Waterfront Park, the City of Wilmington has suggested the future development around the park could include a public-private parking project. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy City of Wilmington)
Since the 2016 park bond was introduced to fund the North Waterfront Park, the City of Wilmington has suggested the future development around the park could include a variety of large, mixed-use developments. (Port City Daily photo / Courtesy City of Wilmington)

In some ways, the official end of the city’s redevelopment regulations is a formality. The northern riverfront area, for example, is already developing in line with the city’s preference for mixed-use development.

“That area is already spurring strong interest for mixed-use,” Harbeck said.

With the North Waterfront Park as a centerpiece, the city is looking at several major mixed-use developments: the public-private River Place, as well as the anticipated Pier 33 project just east of the Port City Marina, as well as several vacant lots the city hopes will be developed as mixed-use.

Further inland, more pronounced changes might be seen. In the Brooklyn Arts District, the city hopes to see a range of mixed-use development as opposed to the more suburban style pursued in the 1970s.

“We hope so. The comprehensive plan clearly calls for a more walkable and bikeable — in order to have that kind of city, you have to have things that can be reached on foot. And that’s where mixed-use development comes in,” Harbeck said.

And what about the largely residential part of Northside?

“The five points area, it was at one time called, is an area with great potential – because those areas would be within walking distance of the rejuvenation along the North Fourth Street,” Harbeck said.

Harbeck made it clear that development in that area would be “strategic,” not wholesale.

“Not redevelopment, but infill development,” Harbeck said. “Not leveling whole blocks. We don’t want to go back to the 1960s where we’re leveling whole blocks and trying to suburbanize them.”

It’s an opportunity, Harbeck said, to bring more of a city feel to the area.

“The residential area in a great opportunity for infill development on vacant lots, and perhaps some structures that are just out of character, maybe they were built in late 60s and early 70s and have a very suburban feel – those could be good candidates for modernization.”


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

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