WILMINGTON — Movement forward on the $90 million public-private partnership known as Project Grace has been humming since mid-March, when county commissioners gave a unanimous thumbs up to developers who labored for years to earn the approval.
Now, transformation of a downtown block is a certainty. Project Grace involves re-inventing the site of the existing public library — by infusing the Cape Fear Museum and a new library into shared real estate, retaining the parking deck and creating private development.
Travis Gilbert, executive director of the Historic Wilmington Foundation (HWF), is casting the same resistance today that he expressed during the March public hearing: The Borst building should stay.
Gilbert is referring to the anchor building on Project Grace land that was constructed in 1926, on which the Chrysler Corporation housed an early dealership. Chrysler, one of the Big Three American car manufacturers, was founded one year prior. Besides the modern stucco, the building is largely unchanged from its original form, according to HWF.
HWF held a press conference Wednesday for National Preservation Month on the first floor of the Giblem Lodge — the second-oldest masonic temple in N.C. and a historical beacon for Black culture in Wilmington since circa 1870.
Flanked by fully garbed masons, Gilbert announced a partnership between HWF and the lodge to preserve the building, and a separate $75,000 investment from the 1772 Foundation to conserve historic homes.
Gilbert also reiterated the stance he took in March; he urged county leaders to place a historic preservation easement on the Borst building. Previously, some residents and stakeholders also vouched strongly for the preservation of the library building, which used to be a Belk department store. But that campaign subsided as it became clear the library would almost certainly be razed.
Historic preservation easements are devices that limit the permissible changes a property owner can make to their structure. Owners and third parties mutually agree on the conditions; the Brooklyn Arts Center, which sprang out of an old Presbyterian Church, is subject to an easement of this kind between HWF and the City of Wilmington.
“Do the county commissioners really want to continue this precedent where we’re destroying our built history in areas of Wilmington?” Gilbert said.
Since the Borst building is beyond the boundaries of Wilmington’s local historic district, by less than a block, Gilbert has slim leverage to force the county’s hand on the easement, which would require the local government’s full consent. The building is, however, in the national historic district; the only regulation associated with that status is a 90-day demolition notice.
Retaining the structure would require crafty arrangement, given the expansive list of offerings the county’s partner, Zimmer Development Company, hopes to produce on the land.
According to Jennifer Rigby, the county’s chief strategy officer, the block was recently surveyed, and currently the Project Grace development team is “gathering data that will help to inform the best location and placement of the museum and library on the site.”
Rigby indicated factors beyond raw space needs could also influence the outcome.
“In addition to the actual space needs of these two important facilities, there are other considerations such as how sunlight can impact artifacts and documents that will be taken into consideration,” she wrote in an email.
Meanwhile, the Project Grace team has been collaborating with museum and library staff in an initial “discovery period.” Zimmer and the design firm, LS3P, both have deep and praised histories of influencing Wilmington’s cityscape.
Gilbert said HWF has also had a seat at the table, and the braintrust’s blank-slate mentality about the path forward, welcoming of all suggestions, encourages him.
“There still is time to preserve the Borst building,” he said. “Little to none is set in stone, so we appreciated LS3P’s time, and we appreciated Zimmer Development Corp’s time.”
For New Hanover County and other local stakeholders, Project Grace is the opportunity to inject resources into Wilmington’s urban core and revitalize the museum and library, two facilities county leaders say are in serious need of significant upgrades.
“During the discovery phase we are currently in, the county’s primary focus is to ensure the library and museum’s space needs and facility considerations are met,” Rigby wrote. “But we are aware and have spoken with HWF about their desire to preserve the Borst building.”
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