WILMINGTON — On Tuesday, Dec. 1, Kristina Whitfield, a transportation engineer from the Triad’s consulting and design firm Kimley-Horn, presented to the City of Wilmington the master plan for the Wilmington Rail Trail.
A transformation into greenway space and pedestrian art, the Wilmington Rail Trail is projected to take up a 2-mile, six-block corridor of the old Atlantic Coast Line railbed, located between 3rd and McRae streets on the northside of downtown Wilmington.
Funding for the ambitious project is still up in the air. Though a total price tag is unknown, early infrastructure costs add up to $5.4 million.
Potential funding partners
With oversight from the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO), the Friends of Wilmington Rail Trail committee, community stakeholders — including local organizations like Cape Fear Public Transit Authority, Cape Fear Community College, DREAMS of Wilmington, the city, the arts council, Wilmington Downtown, Inc., NAACP and others — and public input, the master plan maps out where the money will go. According to Whitfield, $500,000 is needed for the trail cleanup, $1.4 million for the addition of ADA ramps (not mandatory but a nice addition, she said), $2.6 million for modification of retaining walls and $900,00 for hydraulic improvements.
“I know that’s a scary conversation to have right now with funding shortfalls that have been happening at the statewide level,” Whitfield said.
However, to help make the vision a reality, she suggested tapping into WMPO direct apportionment funds and various grants: the National Endowment for the Arts, Community Development Block Grant, and Parks and Recreation Trust Fund Grant. As well, Whitfield noted local funds could be procured from transportation bonds, since the North Carolina Department of Transportation will retain ownership of the corridor, and has plans to bring back the passenger rail to Wilmington in the trail’s final phase — something councilmember Neil Andersen commented was the “future, future, future rail.”
“The focus is on partnerships, here,” Whitfield said in her presentation. “It’s a complicated corridor with tricky elements, so by bringing in the DOT, city, friends, and members of the community, we are able to leverage partnerships and implement a plan that serves all parties’ interests.”
Green space and art
The Wilmington Rail Trail has been gaining traction since it first appeared as part of the Comprehensive Greenway Plan in 2013. The plan’s goal is to connect blue and green space across the city and county, and Whitfield called the Wilmington Rail Trail a small piece of that larger puzzle.
“It’s important to think of it in that way,” she noted. “It’s really a great connectivity point from McRae to the community college and ultimately the Riverwalk.”
The trail will be multi-modal, adjoining to various areas of downtown, from The Promenade and northside areas, to Archie Blue Park, Burnt Mill Creek and Forest Hills Elementary. Access points to the railbed will be at 3rd Street parking lot, near Cape Fear Community College, N. 5th Avenue, N. 8th and Brunswick streets, and McRae Street.
Naturally, it will need amenities installed, like lighting, benches and water access, to ensure safety measures for folks who use it to walk, bike, jog, or congregate.
“The more comfort supply, the better,” Whitfield said.
The corridor serves an area of downtown that has 4,854 people living in its vicinity and 8,000 people employed within a half-mile around it, according to the plan’s research. Whether folks use it as a path to travel to work via bike or by foot, or as a place to enjoy lunch during a break, it will be integrated into the greater Wilmington community, Whitfield noted. More so, it will be reflective of the area and residents it serves.
“There’s a rich history of the corridor,” Whitfield said.
The stakeholders want to integrate the community and include art work reflective of the area, such as the location of The Daily Record (the African American-owned newspaper that was burned down during the 1898 riots) or “One Tree Hill”’s famed bridge on 5th Avenue.
Executive director of the Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County, Rhonda Bellamy, will oversee the arts installation and curation of the Wilmington Rail Trail. Whitfiled said the committee imagines the art work to revolve and evolve through the life of the trail.
“I envision the northside’s rich history as a great source of inspiration for artistic interpretation,” Bellamy wrote in an email late Tuesday. “Examples include the history of the railroad itself, the once-thriving business district, and northside luminaries like the late Meadowlark Lemon.”
The public has gotten behind the project as well. Whitfield expressed surprise when, after the WMPO and arts council launched their survey in fall, over 1,900 people responded with more than 2,000 comments.
“This is by far the highest response rate I’ve ever seen on a plan of this size for a community of this size of Wilmington,” she said.
Only 2% of respondents noted they may not utilize the trail. The other 98% had various ideas of how they would access it, with the majority noting recreation and exercise via biking, running and walking. They also ranked their top interests in improving the trail as a safer place to walk and bike, enhancing their quality of life, and having greater access to downtown destinations from the northside.
The rail trail will be implemented over three phases, including cleaning up and preparing the corridor for development (leveling land, installing drainage), followed by coordinating with NCDOT to block it off with protective fencing to install public art and amenities (the plan notes fencing can be aesthetically pleasing, even sculptural to match its artistic vibe). The third and final phase is the “build-out of the passenger rail service, completing the rail component of the multimodal corridor,” according to the plan.
“I’m visual,” councilmember Charlie Rivenbark said. “Has anyone done an overall pretty picture of what this project could look like?”
Whitfield answered it’s coming in the next phase: An action plan will include engineer designs and map out how it all would look when completed, plus give detailed figures and costs. Kimley-Horn will present the action plan to council in the beginning of 2021.
“It seems tight,” councilmember Andersen remarked of the 12-foot wide space surrounding the railbed. “And the conversation about art work: Is there room for it?”
“There are smart ways to do that,” Whitfield said, suggesting murals and public art installations. “Maybe it won’t always be on the trail itself but near parts of it. . . . The trail and rail could co-exist and be successful.”
According to Bellamy, they’ll understand more clearly the space they’ll have to work with during the design phase. Though, she ensured the NC DOT have dealt with this before.
“Our partners at the NC Department of Transportation say they have granted easements to use the rail right-of-way for similar projects in other areas,” Bellamy added. “We anticipate requesting such easements until passenger rail returns to the corridor.”
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