WILMINGTON — A rezoning request ignited a debate among Wilmington City Councilmembers, apparently divided by their perspectives on Castle Street’s recent pattern of redevelopment.
The request would transform three parcels on a 0.62-acre vacant lot on 10th and Castle Street into a three-story mixed-use building. Retail is planned on the first floor, with 16 multi-family units planned for the second and third floors.
Related: Habitat for Humanity talks gentrification and affordable housing in Castle Street area
To move ahead with developing “The Crown,” the property’s owner, Dave Spetrino, sought to rezone the parcels from residential and Main Street Mixed-Use (MSMU) to Urban Mixed Use (UMX).
Kevin Spears, Council’s most freshman member, cast the lone vote against the proposal, which passed 6-1. Spears and Councilman Clifford Barnett are both black on a majority white City Council; Barnett said he was in favor of the proposal but suggested Council conduct a workshop on gentrification.
Castle Street once functioned as a haven for black businesses and shoppers in the mid-20th century. Over the past decade, some blocks of the street have been renovated, part of a larger revitalization effort to shift the economically distressed area of town into an arts and antique district.
The changes have increased the city’s tax base and surrounding property values, with vacant lots and distressed buildings ripe with redevelopment potential. But this shift also carries the potential to displace city’s long-time, low-income, and often black homeowners — who predate the neighborhood’s redevelopment potential.
Between public comments on the topic, Councilman Charlie Rivenbark could be heard telling fellow councilmembers, “God damn, you’re hell if you do, hell if you don’t.”
Spetrino started his March 3 pitch imploring Council to imagine a young man moving to town to begin their first job. “They call their mom, and they say, I’m moving to Wilmington,” he said. He spoke of tennis courts, parks, a pool, distillery, coffee shops, restaurants, and antique shops, all within a stone’s throw of this imaginary son’s home.
“The problem is, there is no place for that person to live. Certainly not within their budget. Certainly not where they can walk out their back door to their workplace. That doesn’t exist,” Spetrino said.
Spetrino can create this vision, he said, if the property is zoned UMX. This zoning designation is “no picnic,” he told Council, but is at least less restrictive than MSMU, UMX’s predecessor. Separately, the City is considering rezoning the entire MSMU zoning district which engulfs Castle Street to UMX as part of its Land Development Code rewrite.
Staff recommended approving the request; Planning Commission unanimously approved it last month.
‘Gentrification at its finest’
Addressing Spetrino’s vision of a young man who could live in The Crown, Spears asked the developer to imagine what the building would do to current surrounding residents.
“But what about the people that already live here? The people who want to stay here? Someone who will not be able to afford living on your property, sir, or your development?” Spears asked.
“It’s just no other way to describe it. It’s gentrification at its finest. With breweries, and whatever taking place on Castle [Street], I think you lose, you’re losing culture. You’re losing a lot of culture. And I just find it problematic,” he said.
Speaking up for neighboring residents is no different than residents who voice concerns against development plans near Wrightsville Beach, Spears said.
“We’ve heard this through our campaign season, this is what we heard. And this is why I’m sitting here now. So I mean, I hate to step on anybody’s toes, but not really, because this is why people put me in this chair. They want me to say, hey, there’s been a problem. This is a problem. And so this is what I’m going to do,” he said.
Ron Sparks, former City Councilman, also asked planners to consider the changes taking place on Castle Street. “I’ve walked up and down Castle Street all my life,” he said. “I’m not asking the city to shut this project down. We don’t have any drama with it. But I’m asking the city to think about planning to change all of Castle to UMX to involve us old-timers that have been there forever. And let us have some words in this conversation.”
‘So be it’
Responding to Spears’s comments, an impassioned Rivenbark brought up an old phone booth on the 10th and Castle Street property where he said many people used to sell drugs.
“And we had police out there, we had shootings out there, we had murders out there. And on that day, we would have got down and kissed the person’s feet that came along and wanted to build a building on that corner. Anything would have been better than what was there,” Rivenbark said.
He said efforts already underway to bring affordable housing downtown are actively addressing concerns Spears raised. The Crown, Rivenbark said, will enhance Castle Street.
“I think it’s a grand addition to Castle Street. And if you want to call that gentrification, so be it. I don’t see it that way. I see it as an improvement for Castle Street,” Rivenbark said.
Reached Monday, Spears said the March 3 meeting was the first time the topic of gentrification came up in a public setting since he was sworn in. He said he understands how a simple rezoning request, like the one before Council last week, seems harmless.
But after years of ignoring, or failing to properly engage with the city’s longtime Castle Street residents, Spears said it already feels like it’s too late for the city to address gentrification. “Let’s talk about it. But the issue remains.”
The discussion begins at approximately the 3:04:13 mark in the video below: