Monday, March 4, 2024

Mayor Bill Saffo: Castle Street plans have ‘changed 360 degrees’ from where they began

A rendering of what the mixed-use development could look like at Castle Street (Port City Daily/Hipp Architecture)
A rendering of what the mixed-use development could look like at Castle Street. (Port City Daily/Hipp Architecture)

WILMINGTON — The future of the Castle Place affordable-housing development remains uncertain, but not lost after Tuesday’s City Council meeting when local officials voted to continue a motion to deny plans for the affordable housing, mixed-use development proposed for the former Wave Transit property.

City staff recommended the denial of the proposal and the reopening of the request for proposal (RFP) stage again due to uncertainties with funding and the fact the developer would require the city to contribute to the project in order to make it work.

“The proposal is conceptual and lacks commitments of funding sources, commercial tenants, and community engagement. There are additional requests of the City including transfer of property (appraised value $390,000) and the cost of remediating environmental concerns that do not have a funding appropriation (est. $196,910),” according to the city staff report.

But ultimately, the City Council opted to give the development team more time. The team consists of Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity, Hipp Architecture and Development, and the Cape Fear Community Land Trust.

Related: Wilmington city staff urge rejection of affordable housing mixed-use development on Castle Street

The project would consist of the revitalization of the two dilapidated existing structures on-site as well as the construction of new retail and residential spaces offering affordable units.

“Things that we have always wanted to do”

“I think this is a very visionary view of what can be done with this property and considering the absolute silence we got from the rest of the community on this, even though many of us received calls from people that were ‘definitely going to submit proposals’ — nothing. But what we got I think is a gem if you really look at it. It does things that we have always wanted to do, it brings together multiple nonprofits working together — and they are the best nonprofits in the affordable housing industry,” Councilman Kevin O’Grady said.

O’Grady also made it a point to highlight the fact that the city would not necessarily have to spend money from federal programs or it’s Home Ownership Pool (HOP) program to fund this project.

“We wouldn’t want to spend all of our housing money for this … but I think we’re forgetting that we have other money that we have never accepted, and it is specifically to go towards affordable housing. And for some reason, we have not been able to find a place to put it. Why couldn’t this project be it,” he asked.

The funding he is referring to is from Tribute Properties, a development company behind the Arboretum projects off Military Cutoff Road. Initially, the company wanted to provide affordable housing units as part of its plans but instead opted to donate money to help kick off an affordable housing trust fund; in May 2018 the company offered $500,000.

But the city has yet to accept the money from Tribute Properties; City Manager Sterling Cheatham suggested the city simply open a trust or escrow account, but City Attorney John Joye stressed the need for an official mechanism by which the city could accept in-lieu payments from developers. Joye declined to respond to questions about what complications or hurdles had prevented the city with coming up with a solution for over a year — city spokesperson Malissa Talbert did confirm the attorney’s office is still reviewing its options.

The city would be responsible for about $1 million if they approve the plans as is (Port City Daily/City of Wilmington)
The city would be responsible for about $1 million if they approve the plans as is (Port City Daily/City of Wilmington)

Mayor Bill Saffo showed some hesitation in the proposal, saying that plans had changed significantly from when City Council first started talking about selling the property for a profit.

“I would just like to say that this deal has changed dramatically, we were going to sell the property and then we were going to see what somebody was going to build and we were going to receive in tax base; we’re now going into this project for over 1 million bucks … This deal has changed 360 degrees,” Saffo said.

Saffo implied the city would ‘lose’ about $400,000 in the land’s value, another $450,000 in Community Development Block Grant funding, and several thousand in environmental and asbestos remediation; it’s worth noting the city had to give away the land over a decade earlier to the Southside Community Development Group. Also, the CDBG grant is federal funding distributed for use on low- and moderate-income housing projects like the Castle Street Proposal (i.e. it’s not city funds that would be ‘lost’).

O’Grady ultimately made the motion to continue the discussion to give the development team more time to secure funding and iron out the details before voting on approval or denial of the project.

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