Thursday, June 13, 2024

‘Wilmington Rail Trail’ project gets ball rolling on official city recognition

Various plans to turn the currently unused CSX railbed in northern downtown Wilmington have circulated for years. Recently, those plans have started to coalesce, and now appear to have the City's blessing.

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)
The Wilmington Downtown Lead, abandoned by CSX in 1990, has been considered on and off for years as the site for a public space. (Port City Daily photo | BENJAMIN SCHAHCTMAN)

WILMINGTON — The ambitious plan to turn the abandoned rail line in downtown Wilmington’s Northside into a park took another step forward last week.

During a presentation to City Council, brought forward by Councilman Paul Lawler, members of the group behind the Wilmington Rail Trail didn’t ask for funding — but they did ask formal recognition.

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

The Wilmington Rail Trail is the latest iteration of a plan that’s been circulating in various ways since CSX shut down the former Atlantic Coast Railroad line in 1990. Both the city and New Hanover County have included plans to utilize the railbed including it in their joint 2013 Comprehensive Greenway Plan.

Those plans were mothballed due to insufficient funding, but more recently a group of private and public parties have taken up the idea of turning the area from North 3rd Street by CFCC to North 10th Street into a public park and arts space.

Rails and trails

In February of 2018, developer Dave Spetrino discussed an early version of the latest plan. That plan, which could eligible for state and federal grants – as well as private investment – would work around CSX’s in-perpetuity ownership of the actual rails. The plan was based on the potential created by legislation passed in 2015, which 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.

That could be an issue, since – with the city’s new multimodal transit center on Third Street – Wilmington and NCDOT have both expressed interest in seeing rail connectivity re-established to the area.

During this month’s presentation to council, Spetrino – along with Rhonda Bellamy – made his case for co-use of the railbed. Spetrino noted that in his recent conversations with NCDOT, he discovered Wilmington has a “200-foot swath” of easement along the railbed (due, Spetrino noted, to the fact that the steam locomotives that once utilized the railway used to “light things on fire” without proper clearance).

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 not specific plan was ever put forward. (Port City Daily Photo | COURTESY CITY OF WILMINGTON)

Plans from the 2013 Greenway plan note that modern trains need only a twenty-foot clearance. Spetrino also noted that the Highline — the decommissioned elevated tracks in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan that are now a public park — is about 40 feet wide, meaning the Northside railbed should have plenty of room for public space, even if CSX reactivates passenger rail service. (The Highline was one of several projects that inspired the Rail Trail, and is probably the most well known.)

‘Acknowledge we exist’

Spetrino and Bellamy both noted that the project was in an exploratory phase and what the group needed wasn’t Wilmington funding, but recognition (that’s probably a good thing, since both Mayor Bill Saffo and Councilman Kevin O’Grady pointed out that with nearly $30 million in Hurricane-Florence related spending, there’s not much money to go around in this year’s budget).

What the group does need, Spetrino told council, is for the city to “acknowledge that we exist.”

That’s both a legal requirement – per the city’s land agreement with NCDOT – and a business practicality. Bellamy, who is also the executive director of the Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County, noted that there is a long list of organizations that would like to “activate” the rail corridor, and that – to acquire state and federal arts and development grants – the city’s imprimatur would be crucial.

Similarly, to generate private investment, the city’s official recognition that the group is “onto something,” as Spetrino put it, would be essentially a pre-requisite.

While council took no formal action, O’Grady said a resolution of support would “probably be easy.” Mayor Pro-Tem Margaret Haynes followed by stating council would direct staff to prepare a resolution to that end, noting that “I’m pretty confident be supported by the majority, at any rate.”

Saffo concluded the presentation by noting that the city is facing “challenging times” financially but added “I want to acknowledge you folks, and I do like the project. I think it’s got a lot of merit. I think we have to start of a plan of action and go from there.”


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

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