Thursday, November 30, 2023

Project Grace gets thumbs up; developer to overhaul block of historic district

Project Grace will be divided into three parcels. In yellow is the Civic and Arts zone, where the museum and library will operate. The parking deck is in blue, and the purple-clad section will be dedicated to multifamily residences. Commissioners unanimously approved the Project Grace agreement. (Port City Daily/ Courtesy New Hanover County)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners approved a plan to recreate a block of county-owned land in downtown Wilmington, capping years of back-and-forth between government stakeholders and a private development firm. 

The agreement between New Hanover County and Zimmer Development Company will guide the establishment of a new library and museum, likely involving the razing of some current structures. 

Zimmer plans to take hold of a portion of the 3-acre county property — which is bound by Grace, Chestnut, 2nd and 3rd streets — and lease land to the county at a rate capped at $4.508 million per year. After 20 years, and as much as $90 million spent, the county will retake control of the land. 

The developers also received a blessing to construct 10,000 square feet of retail space and an unknown number of multifamily-use residences on the site. The existing parking deck will be retained.

“We’ve started and stopped a few times,” Zimmer’s director of development Adam Tucker told board members during the Monday morning meeting. “And we’re kind of at a point where we’re ready to either do this or not. And we really wanted some type of assurance that everyone is on board and this is what everyone has agreed to this go-round.” 

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Zimmer and the county, however, is not yet binding. Commissioners opted to open a 60-day window for agents of the museum and library to engage with Zimmer. Following that, crafting and formalizing the development agreement could be a year-long process.

“The agreement would require another public hearing and also be subject to review by the Local Government Commission,” according to a county press release.  

Construction could be completed by the summer of 2024, according to a tentative timeline. Beyond offering more influence to museum and library staff, commissioners made additional changes to the MOU.

Previously, 75,000 square feet had been dedicated to office space. The county hoped for the City of Wilmington to be the occupant, but all references to the potential arrangement with the city were removed during the meeting at the bequest of the board.

“They have not come forward with any commitment, but that is not an issue for us,” Tucker said. “This is a county project. We’re prepared to move forward without them.” 

According to a county spokesperson, Zimmer has the option to repurpose its proposal to shift that square footage elsewhere, like for retail or residences, but actions of that manner would require board approval when the development agreement is considered. 

County Chairwoman Julia Olson-Boseman said city officials never committed to occupying the building; even after city and county legislators hosted a joint meeting last month, in which Project Grace was on the agenda, the city made no guarantees. 

“That’s between the city and the developer,” Olson-Boseman told Port City Daily.

City leaders have concerns about the deal’s price tag. Because New Hanover County plans to engage with Zimmer in a lease-to-own deal — Zimmer has stated that to do otherwise would be a nonstarter — the projected cost is $24 million higher than it would be if the county financed the project solo.

“That’s just not part of our model to do fee development,” Tucker said. “We’ve been offered time after time by national companies to be fee developers for them all over the country, and it’s just not something that the Zimmer family has decided they want to embark upon.” 

Jennifer Rigby, New Hanover County chief strategy officer, told the board leasing the land ensures Zimmer will bring private development to the site, which in turn creates tax revenue. 

The New Hanover County Main Library on Chestnut Street in downtown Wilmington. (Port City Daily/ File)

A handful of residents voiced opposition to the project, citing concerns over the rush to demolish buildings that some say are influential to downtown Wilmington’s aesthetic and historical value. The Borst Building, once a 1920’s Chrysler dealership, is a contributing historic structure, and as such would require approvals from Wilmington before it could be demolished.

Proponents of the library — housed in a 1950’s department store — have asked for operations to continue downtown until the new facility is completed. As of now it’s unknown where the library will be temporarily housed during construction, and what exactly will become of the existing Cape Fear Museum building.

It’s also unknown whether the county-owned land set for private development will be leased or purchased. 

“As far as whether it’s a lease or purchase, again, we may end up with a hotel on top of the library,” Tucker said. “We probably won’t, but in theory you could be buying a condominium space and not an actual parcel of land.”

Olson-Boseman said the Borst building did not have historical value to the extent that it was worth preserving, whereas the Historic Wilmington Foundation has campaigned for a historic preservation easement to be placed on the building. 

“Our Historic District designation is already at risk after years of historic properties being demolished due to neglect, storm damage, and the loss of architectural integrity,” Travis Gilbert of HWF and Gareth Evans of the Bellamy Mansion Museum wrote in a StarNews opinion piece. 

“A decrease in district size could cost downtown economic benefits, like eligibility for Federal Historic Preservation Tax Credits,” they wrote.

Officials for the chamber of commerce and Wilmington Downtown Inc., in turn, vouched heavily for moving forward with Project Grace. 

During a live-streamed informational event last month, Tucker said Project Grace will not materialize at a moment’s notice. The passage of the MOU was only the kickoff — a signal to Zimmer that the county was pleased with the arrangement. 

“This is not going to happen overnight, as much as many of us would like it to,” Tucker said. “It will be a deliberate process.” 

On Wednesday, the third of a three-part series on Project Grace will be released, recapping more details of the alterations made to the preliminary Memorandum of Understanding. Beyond the changes mentioned in this article, the county also directed Zimmer to incorporate 8,000 square feet of additional space for the museum and library in its project plans, at no additional cost to the county. Catch up on the events that led to today’s approval of the deal below.

Part 1: Redevelopment of county-owned property planned in high-dollar deal 

Part 2: Historical activists make their play, county defends process with Project Grace vote at hand

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