Despite resident opposition, city approves increased residential density in Riverlights

Riverlights has evolved in the decade since it was first annexed into the City of Wilmington. (Port City Daily photo/File)

WILMINGTON — Though dozens of residents aired frustrations with the proposed changes, the City of Wilmington approved a development agreement and rezoning of the Riverlights development at a regular council meeting Tuesday.

The change allows the developer, Newland Communities, to increase its maximum allowable residential units by 20%, or 560 units.

Related: Riverlights looks to increase max units by 20%, add new commercial portion


That’s up 46%, or a total of 1,060 units, from Riverlights’ first development agreement with the city, penned in 2009. The 1,358-acre development was first annexed then, and in the decade since, market conditions have shifted.

The first homeowners moved in between 2016 and 2017. A total of 1,467 lots, including apartment units, are currently approved, according to senior city planner Brian Chambers.

City council approved both the amended development agreement and rezoning of a 121-acre parcel on the southeastern end of the property from residential conditional district (R7-CD) to mixed use conditional district (MX-CD).

Council voted 6-1 on both items, with councilman Kevin Spears dissenting. Spears asked questions about whether the developers had ever considered affordable or workforce housing in their plans; Riverlights VP of operations, Nick Cassala, explained they had not.

Up residential, down commerical

In exchange for increasing residential density, the developers are reducing plans for commercial space. Compared to the 1,000,000 square-feet cap first implemented 11 years ago, the range of commercial square footage has dropped from 750,000 to 850,000 square feet to a new range of 470,000 to 682,000 square feet its latest development agreement, approved in 2013.

The range offers developers the flexibility to amend plans according to market conditions, without frequently returning to city council to request revisions.

Unlike many major developments, Riverlights installed the bulk of its infrastructure upfront. Senator-elect Michael Lee, who represented Newland Communities as a private attorney in its proposal before city council, explained the early investment in infrastructure helps alleviate planning issues many communities encounter with large projects further down the line. Allowing development to take place on a sliding scale helps developers make sure projects match the infrastructure in place, Lee said.

“When the conversion factor was derived, it was really was to protect the fact that all this upfront infrastructure that was planned over 10 years ago was not going to come up on the short end of the stick, if you actually converted,” he said.

Residents who opposed the project mostly took issue with the increase in residential density and the developer’s deviation from original site plans, which they factored in while purchasing their properties. Many cited concerns with a new four-story apartment building, which is being constructed by-right but was not initially included in the developer’s plans.

“I think you’ve got some public relations work to do with your clients,” councilman Kevin O’Grady told Lee, citing resident concerns about apartment buildings in a single-family home area.

They worried the increased density would add to traffic concerns. However, Lee explained maximum trips would actually decrease with the reduction in commercial.

“This isn’t reasonable, it’s not fair, and it’s certainly not right,” Riverlights homeowner Tyra Lallo told council of the developer’s changes.

New mixed-use

With the rezoning, Riverlights will build a new mixed-use node. The 121-acre site will connect through Arnold Road, a residential road that currently dead-ends on either side, but connects to Silver Lake Road, which is accessible from Carolina Beach Road.

Mayor Bill Saffo acknowledged neighbors’ concerns about the residential cut-through. Creating connectivity is the cornerstone of alleviating traffic on major arterials, Saffo said, but is inevitably contentious because it puts more traffic in residential areas.

Riverlights proposes the new mixed-use site will comprise 34% residential, 39% commercial and 26% institutional space, with the possibility of office square footage, depending on market conditions.

View the Riverlights master plan below, with the rezoned portion outlined in red and enlarged below the master plan. Click to enlarge.


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