Monday, February 26, 2024

City gets almost everything it wants in Riverfront Park, possibility of river access uncertain

The city originally planned to construct a 240-foot long floating dock alongside the Riverwalk to provide river access to Riverfront Park, an endeavor stifled by the federal navigation channel and budgetary constraints. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

WILMINGTON — Though it’s a year late and about $11 million over budget, the city’s hallmark Riverfront Park is stirring up buzz after already landing several big acts set to christen the new stage this summer.

Construction cost increases led the city to “value engineer” several aspects of the $31 million project with consultants. The city selected the middle-ground of three design options, despite the eventual cost running north of the “aspirational” park estimate.

RELATED: After delays and cost increases, city anticipates June 2021 opening for Wilmington’s North Waterfront Park

Though identified as an essential feature of the planned park, visitors won’t be able to arrive by water. (Still, Port City Marina is next door, and the 1.75-mile Riverwalk hugs the city’s waterfront property.)

Last week, the city’s community services director Amy Beatty told a virtual audience at the Wilmington Arts Summit the public is getting almost everything it originally asked for in a community survey about the park.

“We were thankful and grateful to be able to tell the public that all of these 10 elements made it into the final design and are being constructed — with the exception of river access,” she said.

The city plans to add a floating dock in the future, she said, as soon as a moratorium on adding docks downtown is lifted.

A city spokesperson also later attributed the lack of the floating dock to a moratorium. Dave Connolly, spokesperson for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), said the corps has no moratorium on docking in place; Beatty explained Friday that while the corps may not label it a moratorium, the city “became aware that they were not permitting any removable floating docks.”

Why not? In short, because of a longstanding federal navigation channel. 

But here’s the long answer: The city’s 6.4-acre park property predates the extension of the Riverwalk, which first made its way across the property in 2014. The year prior, the city purchased the land for $3.6 million from Riverfront Holdings LLC. From 1850 until the mid-2000s, the site was used by Almont Shipping Company to store a variety of materials, including granite, limestone, mined salt products, ammonium nitrate and other commodities.

A potentially contaminated designated Brownfields site, the city purchased a half-acre portion of the property from Riverfront Holdings II, LLC in 2008 arising out of a development agreement, by which the company sought to reroute the Riverwalk in front of its planned restaurant (Marina Grill). Six years later, the city increased its stake in the property and began planning for a public park.

The city built the Riverwalk extension exactly to the border of USACE’s historic harbor line, originally established by Congress to preserve the integrity of the federal shipping channel. In the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, Congress did away with harbor lines, according to Connolly. 

“[A]t this point there were lots of things built to that line, so the Wilmington District decided to keep the line there, instead of putting it where it would be if it [was] treated as a regular setback, which would create a lot of encroachments,” Connolly explained.

The corps has held the same harbor line since. Today, very little commercial traffic traverses north of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, save for the occasional experienced charter captain. Regardless, the corps enforces its harbor line, prohibiting fixed structures that breach the federal channel.

“If the dock would encroach the federal navigation channel, then it would be denied,” Connolly said.

In a Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) major permit application, submitted to regulators in May 2019, the city included plans for a 240-foot long, 15-foot wide floating dock with nine transient slips. Pilings would be installed landward of the harbor line, the original application states, and the floating dock would encroach USACE’s territory by 15 feet.

The structures would be designed to be removed, if required by USACE.

USACE only allows floating encroachments within this region on a case-by-case basis; contractors need the additional room and maneuverability to perform maintenance dredging of the channel. 

Estimated to cost $269,000, the city’s engineering firm recommended the dock be included from day one. When looking to cut costs, it was instead included as a future planning item for a forthcoming phase.

After the city’s CAMA application was submitted and staff consulted with the corps, staff pulled the dock from the plans — “primarily because the dock wasn’t funded and therefore approval was not necessary,” city spokesperson Dylan Lee explained.

There’s no funding or timetable for river access, according to Lee. “The city will of course have to receive permission in the future when this phase of the project is funded and ready to move forward,” he wrote in an email.

Below, view USACE’s harbor line relative to the city’s Riverfront Park property:

Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at

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