Friday, December 2, 2022

What will happen to the barren 40 acres across the street from UNCW?

Owned by Phillips Management Group, around 40 acres of land across from UNCW has sat barren since Hurricane Florence forced its demolition years ago. The developer has no plans to sell. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON—A fenced-in plot of condemned, razed land has faced UNCW for over a year. The Seahawk statue that marks the center of campus gazes across College Road, into the gates of what once was The Glen apartments. 

Construction on the property broke ground in 1967, just four years after UNCW was authorized to offer bachelor’s degrees. The owners, Phillips Management Group, expanded the project since then, eventually amassing 38.8 acres of land. 

The Glen was largely unfocused on student housing, despite its proximity to the university. When students would call to inquire about leases, they usually turned away after learning the Glen was neither furnished nor rented by the bed, according to Brandon Mathis, director for marketing and training for Phillips Management Group. 

“Our product was different and our appeal was different,” Mathis said. “As far as formal relationships between owner and university, there weren’t any.” 

The apartments were ravaged during Hurricane Florence. The worst of it came not from flooding, but “from the slow-moving storm’s sustained heavy winds and falling rain amounts over a period of many days, combined with extended power outages,” Mathis said. 

After the storm, around 1,000 residents were told the buildings had been condemned, and they would need to vacate in less than a week, according to a report from WECT

Residents departed in a haste and left items behind in the units, WECT later reported. Eventually, a drug culture swept the complex, which was declared a public nuisance, and PMG submitted demolition plans. 

That was over a year ago, and now all that remains of the apartments are piles of blocks and leftover concrete foundations. The site has been mostly leveled. Marked by a chain-link fence, the former entrance to the apartments is flanked on one side by an under-renovations gas station and on the other by Little Caesars Pizza. 

“Any plans to maintain the status quo were definitely disrupted, for anyone in that community, business or individual alike,” Mathis said. “It was devastating.” 

PMG has no plans to sell the property, and a comprehensive assessment will educate the company on potential options for redevelopment, Mathis said. 

“It is highly likely that the property will be redeveloped, and as housing, because that’s what we do,” Mathis said.

Both private developers and the university itself have recently sought opportunities for student-housing developments in the College Road corridor. UNCW will open new residential buildings for sophomores prior to the fall 2021 semester, and the university established a new campus hub for younger residential students last year. 

Kerr Avenue infrastructure improvements have led to dense townhome projects further from campus, and Randall Parkway, part of UNCW’s northern border, is dotted with student-filled complexes. Construction on another is currently underway just past the edge of campus, near Racine Drive.

As of March last year, police calls around UNCW were the highest for all regions in Wilmington, sparking some calls for more oversight.

Mathis said just because PMG’s land sits across the street, “or, you know, across the highway,” from UNCW, a student-focused development is not a guarantee. The redevelopment plans will be designed to meet a targeted need for the Wilmington community as a whole, he added. 

“A catastrophe like that can bring a unique opportunity for recovery,” Mathis said, referring to Hurricane Florence. An employee at the nearby Little Caesars, and one at the next-door furniture store both said they heard rumors about new plans for redevelopment, but nothing official. 

UNCW’s foothold across College Road

UNCW owns property next to the former Glen apartments, opposite from the main campus on College Road. Purchased in 2003 for $1.8 million, according to property records, the site was a movie theater during the 1980s — not to be confused with the former movie theater on Oleander Drive that was also previously owned by the university.

The property has been utilized as a parking lot, called a “park and ride,” where students can drop off their cars and take shuttle buses onto campus. In university planning documents, the site is identified as a potential zone for future development. 

In an emailed statement, Miles Lackey, UNCW vice chancellor of business affairs, said the St. James Drive property is an extremely important asset for the university. Beyond just the parking lot, the office of university relations building and other satellite offices are on the other side of College Road too.

“The long-term use and corresponding development of the property is something we will have to carefully evaluate as we engage in the Master Planning process which we intend to start later this year,” his statement noted. 

The City of Wilmington pitched a proposal that would use the parking lot as a connection to Kerr Avenue, but the university’s response was that further studies and discussions were necessary, according to the 2017 master plan. UNCW also vouched for increasing the pedestrian crossing time at College Road intersections, and “has been in discussions” with the city, county and N.C. Department of Transportation about funding safety improvements.

Lackey said he is not aware of any previous dealings between Phillips Management Group and the university.

“I definitely think that the university’s park-and-ride system could contribute to an interesting dynamic,” Mathis said. “But I don’t have enough information about that system right now to really speculate on what it might look like.”

According to Michael Mallin, a UNCW professor who monitors water pollution conditions for the City of Wilmington, this highly developed area of College Road drains into Burnt Mill Creek. Most of the UNCW campus drains into the Bradley Creek watershed. 

“Burnt Mill is the most polluted creek in Wilmington,” Mallin said. “That creek has been declared impaired by the NC Division of Environmental Quality. Thus, redeveloping the property in a responsible manner should be a priority.”

Related: Rain gardens at UNCW reduce millions of gallons of runoff otherwise destined for Bradley Creek

Maintaining high levels of green space and cutting down on impervious concrete square footage could help ease pollution in the area, Mallin said. 

It’s unknown what will become of UNCW’s across-the-street neighbor. Putting a timeline on future redevelopment is impossible, Mathis said. 

“It had been an asset there for many years,” Mathis said. “I think it’s going to be exciting to see how the community — and those residents and leaders and business, including our own and the university — continue to move forward beyond that aftermath.”

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