WILMINGTON — For years, the city of Wilmington has been taking steps to make a mixed-use re-development of the former Galleria property on Wrightsville Avenue a reality. Now, the last hurdle appears to be a proposal to completely remake the road – and questions about who will pay for it.
The project would turn Wrightsville Avenue between Military Cutoff and Eastwood roads into a “complete street,” a four-lane road with a divided, landscaped median, bike lanes, and sidewalks and potentially buried utility lines. There have been numerous proposals for updating Wrightsville Avenue, but it’s the most extensive plan – for a complete street – that is at issue.
A complete street would mean that developer Jeff Kentner of State Street Companies would agree to move forward with a mixed-use development for the site, instead of a less complicated project; this would very likely mean a project generating more property tax revenue for the city.
It would also, as Kentner has pointed out, allow the city to fulfill its own policies for the area, laid out in the 2011 Wrightsville Sound Small Area Plan; the plan, along with the city’s comprehensive plan, has guided a series of actions to facilitate a mixed-use development on the Galleria site. According to Kentner, his plans are a “verbatim application” of the city’s own goals for the Wrightsville Sound area.
“We designed this based on the small area plan – this is what the city wanted, which is based on [what] residents wanted,” Kentner said.
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo and Kentner have both said the deal is a potential win-win for both parties. Both agree that State Street’s project would get a road that would be safer and more aesthetically pleasing, the city would get to create a “gateway” road – not dissimilar to the city’s reasoning for overhauling the North Third Street area. Both Kentner and Saffo also noted that, with extensive roadwork coming to Military Cutoff and Eastwood roads, Wrightsville Avenue would likely need to handle increased traffic flow.
“I would like to see a complete street with four lanes, a divided highway, I think it would be a nice thing for the community, I think it would be a nice pedestrian walkway,” Saffo said.
Kentner has put forward a “Roadway Improvement Agreement” (RIA) that the proposes a joint public-private project, including funding from NCDOT, Wilmington, New Hanover County, and State Street, as well as input from the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO). The city and NCDOT are currently reviewing the plan. (According to Mike Kozlosky, WMPO executive director and Wilmington transportation planning manager, the city and State Street have abandoned a proposed development agreement that addressed the issue, submitted by the developer in July of 2018, in part because such agreements pertain largely to zoning, not road work.)
Saffo noted that, considering the NCDOT owns the road and the interchanges at Military Cutoff and Eastwood, there could be a multi-party project.
“I sure as heck would work for it. Any time you can work with a private developer, worth with the state, and combine your monies together, I think you can get things done quicker…I think there’s an opportunity and there’s a will to try and make the improvements necessary at those intersections with everyone working together, we all have a role in this thing, a possible role in it,” Saffo said.
The real questions that remain aren’t whether a joint project can be done, but how much will it cost, and who will pay for it.
“I think what we’re trying to figure out is who’s going to pay for it, and who’s going to pay for what,” Saffo said.
What will it cost?
There have been numerous proposals for overhauling Wrightsville Avenue over the years, ranging from under $2 million to over $10 million.
The least expensive proposal came from Thompson, Corder & Co. in 2018, putting the number just under $2 million – for a plan that didn’t include burying utilities or many of these ‘complete street’ requirements. The NCDOT provided a more thorough proposal on July 28, 2017, with an estimated cost of $3.6 million, that still falls short of a complete street as defined by the city of Wilmington.
The city performed its in-house own cost analysis for a variety of road upgrade options, in addition to one provided by the WMPO in May of 2018 that put the cost around $4.5 million dollars. That estimate is similar to the one in the RIA submitted to NCDOT and Wilmington by State street, which – allowing for cost increases and contingencies – is priced at $5.25 million.
Lastly, there’s a $10.5 million proposal, based on a preliminary concept design package by McKim and Creed; it’s the only one explicitly identified as a complete street. It’s also similar to the cost of the North Third Street renovation project, which was roughly the same length of road.
Kentner said he couldn’t speak to what the final costs would actually be, saying only that the estimates in the RIA were based on the city’s previous cost studies.
The city will apparently be conducting its own cost analysis based, at least in part, by the traffic plan submitted for the Galleria project, which states, “In order for the mixed-use project to be developed, multimodal transportation improvements to Wrightsville Avenue are required.” The city approved the TIA in last month, noting that the development required that the road be upgraded to a complete street.
(Note: On August 7, Kozlosky confirmed that city “has entered into a contract with Clark Nexsen for conceptual design and to develop cost estimates for Wrightsville Avenue.”)
Saffo said that the city would consider a variety of options for upgrades, but said he was concerned about repeating something like the decision to expand Military Cutoff Road to a four-lane road instead of having six lanes. The 2002 decision, which was being openly criticized before work was even complete, “is the kind of lesson we don’t want to ignore,” Saffo said.
“I have to deal in certainties, not speculation, and I have to make sure our engineers, who are representing our citizens, are evaluating every aspect of the plan, to make sure we have all of the aspects of the cost included. Because what we don’t want to do, no matter what happens, is have something like [Military Cutoff] where the city would get the criticism and I’d get the criticism – rightfully so – if we didn’t do it right and had to go back and redo it in the future,” Saffo said.
According to Kozlosky, the city will hire an independent consultant to produce “conceptual design” do a cost estimate based on it. Koslosky said the city had not entered into an RIA or any other agreement with State Street.
Who will pay what?
According to a draft of State Street’s RIA, the NCDOT and City of Wilmington would each provide $2 million in funding, New Hanover County would provide $750,00, and State Street would provide $500,000. Since the draft was written in December of 2018, some of those numbers have changed.
Spokesperson Jessica Loeper said the county was not considering entering into any roadway agreement in the area.
Other parties, however, are still considering it, although it’s not clear exactly where the NCDOT stands on the project.
Kentner said State Street is still willing to provide a half-million in funding, noting that – because the Galleria project is by-right, and the city itself was responsible for zoning the property – there are no legal or zoning requirement for State Street to do any road improvements. Kentner said the $500,000 was a “sign of good faith, and we hope that we see this thing go forward after four years.”
Kentner reiterated what he has also said in emails to city staff and elected officials, that the NCDOT has offered $1.3 million for the project. Kozlosky said in mid-July that “ased on a recent conversation with the NCDOT Division Engineer, her office has not received the needed paperwork from the Department to allocate funds to the project.”
Division Engineer Karen Collette, supervising Highway Division 3, confirmed that the NCDOT has received and was reviewing the RIA, but said there were no current funds to allocate to the project. Asked about this, Kentner said it was his understanding that NCDOT officials in Raleigh had committed the money, although the offer would not stand indefinitely.
There is some history of NCDOT support for the project. In late 2016, then-Secretary Nick Tennyson requested that the city consider taking over Wrightsville Avenue between Military Cutoff and Eastwood if the city could find funding to turn the stretch of road into a complete street.
The item was not on the agenda, and Tennyson’s letter doesn’t appear as a supporting document. Saffo put the item forward at the end of the December 6, 2016 meeting, noting that the project would require funding, a TIA, and city council approval. After a brief discussion, including concerns from Councilman Paul Lawler that the complete street would displace other projects, the resolution to consider future city management of the street passed.
“We passed a resolution over two years ago saying we might take over the road, if and when the complete street was completed,” Saffo said in a recent interview. “But there are a lot of things we have to evaluate, before we would even consider that. What the costs are, what the impacts of this project will be.”
Saffo also echoed Lawler’s concern from 2016, that there might be other projects higher up on the city’s priority list, especially after Hurricane Florence and months of heavy rain in 2018.
“We’ve got a lot of specific needs around this city, it’s not just this roadway — the aftermath of last year’s 103 inches of rain, it has played havoc with the road system, a lot of potholes and issues that need to be looked at in the very near future,” Saffo said.
Kentner said State Street has had productive meetings with the city in recent weeks, and hopes to “hammer out an agreement that is satisfactory to all constituents.”
Ultimately, however, the decision will have to be made by city council. Saffo said he did not know when a proposal could be put forth, saying he wanted to balance moving the project forward with carefully evaluating it.
“We’ve been evaluating this thing and looking at this thing and talking about this thing for a long time now, so we’re not making any knee-jerk reactions,” Saffo said.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001