WILMINGTON — After about a year-long construction delay and millions in cost increases, the slamming of hammers and beeps of loud machinery along the riverwalk sound promising to taxpayers who approved the City of Wilmington’s “flagship” North Waterfront Park in the 2016 Parks Bond.
Work was slated to begin on the city’s “signature urban park” in 2018 but was pushed back due to budget concerns, hurricanes and an attentive design process. Now that construction is well underway, the park is on schedule to open in June 2021.
“We’re keeping a close eye on any delays that might be expected due to Covid,” said Amy Beatty, the city’s community services director. “So far we’ve been fortunate in that area and are meeting our project deadlines.”
$11 million over first estimate
The price tag for the park has also gone up over the years to $31 million. It is partially funded by the parks bond voters agreed to when the estimate for the project was $20 million.
The City of Wilmington credits this rise in price to utilities and rising market costs.
“Our contractor likes to say, ‘This project has been like building a building upside down,’” Beatty said. “There is a lot of infrastructure that is going in the ground that park users won’t see but contributes to the cost of the park.”
Specifically, there’s been construction cost inflation since Hurricane Florence and supply chain issues as the construction market struggles to keep up with Wilmington’s growth and subcontractors become largely unobtainable, Beatty explained.
At the same time the park was being planned, other commercial construction projects were ongoing in the area surrounding the park. The neighboring luxury apartments that were nonexistent when the project first started now have tenants coming and going from the parking deck near the worksite.
Once complete, the most prominent feature of the park is the amphitheater that Live Nation will manage. The hope is the performance arena will build off the success of the Hugh Morton Amphitheater, a smaller boutique venue also owned by the city at Greenfield Lake.
Live Nation will also manage operations at Greenfield Lake, after being approved for a 10-year deal in October.
On the water
When the park is not being used for concerts, the public will have access to a playground and splash pad, as well as plenty of green space, trails, gardens and lots of shady trees.
The park is being built on a 6.6-acre historic brownfield site the city purchased in 2013. One particular path designed into the park will mimic a rail line that used to exist on the property.
“The long history of Wilmington being a port city and the railyard that used to be in this location is both a complication but also an opportunity to celebrate,” said Natalie Carmen, project manager at Stewart, the engineering firm working on the park.
Stretching along the northern downtown waterfront, the land, near the Isabel Holmes Bridge, will be the closest public access to the Cape Fear River without a seawall or boardwalk.
“From the beginning, it was important for us to design a park that allowed for interaction between the park user and the river,” Beatty said.
The way the site is oriented toward the water is expected to create a unique synergy with the natural elements, as people watch a concert at the amphitheater or picnic on the lawn. There will also be opportunities for educational and environmental programming, Beatty said.
As a starting point for planning the park, the city reviewed its adopted Parks, Recreation and Open Space Master Plan and the Vision 2020 plan, which focuses on balancing the downtown district’s ecology and historic character with economic development.
The plans both envisioned parks at the two bridges crossing the river. Opposite of North Waterfront Park, at Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, Dram Tree Park offers a boat ramp and green space for the public to enjoy.
These prioritizations of open space and highlighting the river recently earned the unfinished park some national recognition. North Waterfront Park is the first project outside of New York to receive the Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines certification from the Waterfront Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for water accessibility. The certificate is comparable to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.
“We had a lot of common objectives already in the design,” Beatty said. “Water quality is very important to city council and we know to the citizens of Wilmington and North Carolina, so being right on the banks of the Cape Fear River, we were mindful of that going in.”
The project is employing a range of stormwater devices such as permeable pavement and infiltration systems. In multiple parts of the park, stormwater treatment mechanisms direct rainwater from the roof to planted areas.
Beatty also believes the alliance appreciated the city’s community engagement efforts. There was a six-month public input process for the park that included collecting input from various groups and online surveys.
“We know this park is going to be important to not only residents from all over Wilmington and New Hanover County but people who work downtown, people who live downtown and, of course, visitors,” Beatty said.
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