Project Grace: Redevelopment of county-owned property planned in high-dollar deal

Part 1: This is the first of a three-part series on the private-public partnership that could lead to the reformation of a block of county-owned land, and the reconstruction of a library and museum known as Project Grace. Next week, the second part will focus on the stakeholders of Project Grace. The third part, focusing on the path forward, will be released after the March 15 board meeting.

Project Grace plans call for a museum and library to be joined on a downtown county-owned parcel. Private apartments will flourish too, according to an agreement between New Hanover County and Zimmer Development Company that will guide the demolition and rebuilding of various county parcels. (Port City Daily/Courtesy New Hanover County)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY—Plans to demolish and reconstruct multiple county properties will be presented to the board of county commissioners March 15. 

After years of evaluation and reconsideration, Project Grace is once again top of mind for New Hanover County officials. The name refers to a block of downtown land that houses the county-owned library and parking deck; the plan is to redevelop the site — potentially the Cape Fear Museum as well — in a public-private partnership. 

Zimmer Development Company is the firm of choice. The company submitted a statement of qualifications initially in 2018. A spokesperson for the county called the new agreement — termed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) — between Zimmer and the county a “refresh and start-over of this project.” 


RELATED: County Commissioners put brakes on Project Grace to ‘explore alternative options

Construction of a new museum and library is expected to cost around $57 million. The county would pay annual rent, estimated at $4.508 million, for 20 years and then take back ownership of the downtown parcel. 

“We wanted to make sure that we had ownership of our assets,” said Jennifer Rigby, New Hanover County chief strategy officer. 

Private apartments are also expected with an estimated construction cost of $23 million. Under the MOU terms, which are still flexible as the board of commissioners meeting approaches, residential development is contingent on the museum and library having adequate space on the other part of the lot.

The county hopes to court the City of Wilmington into the project. The MOU dedicates 75,000 square feet of the development to office space, ideally for Wilmington municipal workers. 

“We don’t know the full extent of conversations yet with the city,” the county spokesperson said. “It could be leased with the city, but it would be the developer building an office component on the site.” 

In an email to a Wilmington resident, Mayor Pro Tem Margaret Haynes wrote: “The City has only been asked to participate in Project Grace. We have a number of other options and no decision has been made on that issue.” 

Rigby said ZDC committed to setting aside at least 5% of the multifamily units within the project’s residential component for workforce housing, for a period of at least 10 years. 

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo told WHQR he hopes that number ends up higher than 5%. 

At some point between 2017 and 2021, Lee Kaess, PLLC — the firm of state senator Michael Lee — began working in some capacity on the project. A copy of the MOU lists Lee as a presenter.

The Cape Fear Museum 

A replica of a giant sloth looks out of the Cape Fear Museum on to Market Street. The original skeleton was found near Randall Parkway in Wilmington. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

The Cape Fear Museum was moved into a National Guard Armory building on Market Street in 1970. A detached parking lot one block away is also owned by the county. 

Rigby said it’s too early to speculate what could become of the existing museum if a new facility were to be incorporated into Project Grace. In 2019 the county discussed with the state government whether it was feasible for the Cape Fear Museum to be taken over by the state. 

After the county learned that route would involve losing all control over exhibition content — and investing upwards of $10 million into the museum’s infrastructure — that option was not pursued further. 

As County Commissioner Bill Rivenbark wrote in an email to a museum official: “The state taking over is dead. They wanted a majority of [the] community to approve and us [to] spend 10 million on [the] museum before we gave it to them. Don’t think any of that would ever happen.”

Floods and wet conditions pose threats to the museum’s basement supply.

“The collection that the Cape Fear Museum has is stored in the basement, and that’s not a best practice for collection storage,” Rigby said. “There’s some improvements that the county knew we would need to make for that particular facility.”

According to an internal document that cites issues to address, museum staff note that clarification is needed about where money to outfit the museum will come from. 

“While the project provides a new building shell, the project does not include new exhibits and up fit [sic],” according to the museum document. “We need to change the narrative quickly if fundraising is expected.”

In a letter to county leaders, Donna Pope, chairperson of the Cape Fear Museum Advisory Board, implored the county to retain the existing building. She asserted the museum requires 16,300 square feet of off-site space. 

“To this end,” Pope wrote, “we believe the current county-owned museum building should continue as a research hub for museum and library functions.” 

CFM Advisory Project Grace by preston lennon on Scribd

The Downtown Library 

The library system’s main location on Chestnut Street, downtown Wilmington. File photo by Ben Brown.

The chairperson of the Library Advisory Board, Jan Brewington, also conveyed a message to county leaders in a letter. She requested commissioners keep the library operational during construction on the county land. 

She also asked for the board to have involvement in decision-making, and for some  public green space to be included in the design. 

“The downtown public library is the only truly ‘walkable’ library in our County,” Brewington wrote. “I know that our shared goal is to ensure that a new downtown library features the type of facility and level of service that our community expects and deserves.”

Both the museum and library share a common concern. While the project was being planned and crafted in 2018, the county paid for a “space needs assessment” to understand the necessary size for future museum and library facilities. 

The report, authored by Vines Architecture, claims “there are considerable programmatic advantages to combining the museum and library.” 

While the library was said to require 38,616 square feet, and the museum needed 35,241 square feet, those calculations involved extra shared lobby spaces, outdoor areas and a large multi-purpose room. Around 7,900 extra square feet was allotted in the report for space shared by both facilities.

In the Memorandum of Understanding, however, there is a “library component” that requires around 38,000 square feet and a “museum component” with a 35,000 sq. ft. size. 

Officials with both the library and museum are eager to see the 8,000 square feet of shared space acknowledged. 

“This shared space, critical to operations, is absent from the MOU’s language,” according to the museum document. 

In the library board letter, Brewington requests “the library building will have ample square footage as identified by a new space needs assessment.” 

In the letter from the museum board, Pope writes, “[T]he library and museum square footage does not include 8,000 + square feet in a shared space that was identified as critical to operations.” 

Rigby said that New Hanover County has not worked directly with Zimmer Development Company before, but knew the firm would be a strong option from its past work with other jurisdictions. 

Ronna Zimmer, the wife of ZDC general counsel Herbert Zimmer, is a member of the Library Foundation Board. 

“We do not develop anything that we intend to sell,” ZDC director of development Adam Tucker said during a county roundtable. “That’s not to say we haven’t sold anything, but everything that we develop is developed to have longevity and sustainability.” 

Letter to Commissioners by preston lennon on Scribd


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