WILMINGTON — Travis Gilbert, the youngest person to become executive director of the Historic Wilmington Foundation (HWF), believes the Northside District in downtown Wilmington is under threat by a proposed mixed-use development called “Project Grace” and other modern buildings.
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When Gilbert spoke out in opposition to the project, moments before New Hanover commissioners unanimously approved a restructured memorandum of understanding to redevelop an entire city block, he said the project’s plan to demolish the historic Borst building would have “damaging repercussions to the entire Wilmington National Registered Historic District.” Built in 1926 as the city’s first Chrysler dealership, the building sits on the square block’s north side, on 2nd Street.
On Thursday afternoon, Gilbert sat in his sprawling corner office in the HWF’s headquarters in the William E. Worth House. He said the Borst building would “set a precedent to keep demolishing contributing structures.”
“And it’s threatening the entire historic district,” Gilbert said, pointing to the building’s location on a large map, leaned against an old iron fireplace. The map shows the city’s local and national historic districts.
Unlike the commercial center of downtown Wilmington — an area consisting of late 19th- and early 20th-century buildings, protected by strict preservation standards as a local historic district — Northside falls under less-stringent regulations as a national historic district. (Local historic districts lie within national districts, but face more regulations on modifications, like paint color, roofline changes, additions, distractions, and windows).
Wilmington’s local historic districts were established by the city council following a recommendation by the Historic Preservation Commission, a nine-member board appointed by the council to “promote, enhance and preserve the character of the Wilmington historic districts.” Council established the first district, consisting of several blocks south of Dock Street in 1962. But large swaths of nationally registered historic districts in the city lay outside of the commission’s jurisdiction, including the Northside.
“And that’s what’s under attack: those national registered districts that don’t have any [local] protections,” Gilbert said.
Before his remarks at the public hearing, Gilbert was told by a local government leader (Gilbert did not wish to identify the person) that his coming speech was a “hollow threat.”
“It shocked me that folks would believe that was a hollow threat because that’s the reality — the reality that our historic districts in this area are under threat. And it’s kind of like cannibalism of sorts,” Gilbert said. “Folks want to move here because they’re attracted by the lifestyle and historic preservation, and historic districts are a key aspect of that lifestyle. But that pressure, that population influx — and that development mindset — is attacking one of the very aspects that drive people to move here.”
[Author’s Note: An email was sent on Friday to all Wilmington councilmembers, including the mayor, and New Hanover commissioners; as of Monday morning there were no responses. They were asked: Do you feel nationally registered historic districts in the city are at risk of losing their historic integrity? What are councilmembers and commissioners doing to protect the Northside District’s historical nature? Do you feel the city’s commitment to historic preservation is as strong as it has been in past decades?]
After Gilbert and several other anti-Project Grace residents spoke to commissioners, Wilmington Chamber of Commerce Chair Michelle Holbroook led those who spoke in support of the project. She said nearly 900 members of the chamber back the development under a common goal: to attract “bright, brilliant young minds” to join the city’s workforce.
“People are moving to urban cores. They’re drawn there by a desire to engage in communities that embrace the future and the coming change,” Holbrook told commissioners. “The decisions that our community makes today should be the decisions that will move us toward a more vibrant community tomorrow. How often do you get a chance to transform an entire city block, to something that does just what those young people are looking for?”
Under the approved memorandum of understanding, Project Grace would consist of building a new museum and library as well as retail, residential, parking, and office space. The current proposal would cost taxpayers $90 million over 20 years in low-interest lease payments to the Zimmer Development Company.
Following Holbrook’s comments, the chamber’s president, Natalie English, took to the podium. She said the county — projected to add nearly 100,000 citizens by 2024 — should embrace creative mixed-use and higher density developments “in the appropriate places to accommodate that growth.”
Northside’s lost buildings
Gilbert spoke of a specific area in Northside that in recent years has seen hotels, apartments, condominiums, and other developments replace numerous “contributing structures” — those deemed by the federal government to meet architectural integrity requirements to be classified as historic buildings. The area lies roughly between Fourth Street and the Cape Fear River and, from south to north, between Fourth and Red Cross streets.
Additionally, the Wilson Center and parts of Cape Fear Community College have been built in the district in recent years. In January 2020, a new Wave downtown transit center opened on Third Street, but did so in a contributing structure. Wave is receiving an award from HWF for successful adaptive reuse of the historic building, according to Gilbert.
When the area was last surveyed in 2003, there were 20 contributing structures along Fourth Street in this area, according to Gilbert; today, only 13 remain — a 35% drop-off. Five of those that still exist, including what is now Edward Teach Brewery and Brooklyn Arts Center, were saved largely due to the HWF’s efforts in placing protective easements on the buildings.
“On the side streets, [the decrease] is even more startling,” Gilbert said.
On Bladen, Brunswick, Hanover, Campbell, and Red Cross streets, the district has lost 15 contributing structures since 2003; only seven remain today, a loss of 68%. Some of the lost structures were replaced by new developments, while others are still vacant lots.
Gilbert said the City of Wilmington once owned the old Presbyterian church that eventually became Brooklyn Arts Center, a popular wedding, event and music venue. The city agreed to place an easement on the building, under HWF’s purview, to require the new owners to keep its historical and architectural integrity.
“The city welcomed us into that process,” Gilbert said. “But New Hanover County, in placing the Borst building in Project Grace under threat of demolition, is not following that standard of what once was. And we’re here waiting for continued cooperation by our elected officials. We would hate to see our elected officials contribute to the erosion of our national register historic districts, and throwing economic benefits like the federal historic preservation tax credits out the window.”
Benjamin Baker was standing on the porch of a small, one-story bungalow built in 1900. It sits on Brunswick Street, sandwiched between two modern townhome buildings. Opposite the home, which he rents, two five-story apartment buildings dominate the north side of the street.
According to the National Park Service, which determines the homes that can be included in national historic districts, the porch has been “greatly altered” since the last survey. Gilbert said it was unlikely to remain a contributing structure after the next survey, due to new metal railing on the porch and plastic siding on the outside walls.
Baker, who was once a local journalist in upstate New York, said he loves living downtown Wilmington, particularly next to the historic buildings that still remain in the district and further south in downtown.
“You remember to appreciate the history of where you’re at,” Baker said. “And it grants you a certain amount of perspective. Living downtown here, I have been far more encouraged to learn more about the history of this town.”
But he also wants to see the city and county expand protections of the city’s historic districts.
“I think that promotes not just an interest in the community, but a pride knowing that we have this history. Downtown Wilmington was part of the reason I moved here,” Baker said.
Gilbert believes the erosion of Northside’s “historic vibe” — and the buildings that contribute to it — point to a bleak future: “[Those numbers] show it was not a hollow threat. This is real. And we’re sweating for the next re-survey. Because we believe expansion of the Wilmington National Register Historic District is in the past, and it might shrink the next time it is surveyed.”
Author’s Note: Check back next week as PCD takes a look at another Wilmington historic district, the Carolina Place neighborhood.
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