Thursday, June 30, 2022

Large-scale Carolina Beach development gains momentum at latest hearing, faces town council next

Site plans for The Proximity. (Port City Daily/Courtesy GHK Cape Fear Development)

CAROLINA BEACH — The Proximity stepped closer to full approval this week. The proposed development in Carolina Beach would turn one of the final large swaths of empty land in the beach’s center business region into a mixed-use complex with more than 250 units.

The Carolina Beach Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously vouched for the project at its Thursday meeting, leaving the developers with one last hurdle to clear before securing approval from the town: a hearing before town council.

Backed by GHK Cape Fear Development — the firm behind the adjacent Publix site and Autumn Hall in Wilmington — the Proximity is planned for a group of parcels off Lake Park Boulevard that are being acquired by the group. 

That includes the land owned by Harris Teeter, which the grocer staked out years ago as the spot for a future store. Overgrown grass and a faded “coming soon” sign eventually became the battleground for a lawsuit fought over the grocer’s attempts to prevent the development of the next-door Publix. Elsewhere on the tract there used to be a putt-putt golf course and amusement park rides that had been relocated from the boardwalk.

Through combining the cluster of parcels, the development team has amassed a 12-acre tract. The proposal involves seven buildings that would contain a total 261 apartment units and other amenities — a restaurant, a fitness club, nearly 19,000-square feet of rentable retail space, and the existing Jersey Mike’s. The project would have at least 44,000-square feet of total heated commercial space, according to the application packet.

The planning commission hearing Thursday followed a months-long effort from the development team to set the stage for this project’s application. Town code previously prohibited development of this sort in the highway business district: In cases of mixed-use development, it was required that ground floors be reserved for only commercial space. 

Brian Eckel is the co-founder of GHK’s sister company Cape Fear Commercial in Wilmington. He has been the frontman for the project in public hearings over the summer, along with attorney Sam Franck of Ward and Smith.

In August, the group first worked to edit the town code through a text amendment. Their proposal asked for the right to build mixed-use projects that could include freestanding residential buildings, instead of having to stock all ground floors with commercial tenants. 

PREVIOUSLY: Developers release more information on 12-acre Carolina Beach project

The market would not support a full-on commercial complex at the site, Eckel said at past public meetings. While the frontage on Lake Park Boulevard would be suitable for attracting commercial customers, Eckel said, commercial tenants would struggle on the property’s backside along St. Joseph Street, where there’s less traffic.

The text amendment was crafted to be isolated to this specific site. One limitation of the rule-change puts a 10-acre minimum on the lots that can take advantage of the new provision. 

In want of more specifics, the planning commission initially voted down the text amendment application unanimously; town council later approved it 4-1, with JoDan Garza dissenting. (The planning commission’s vote acts as a recommendation to council.)

With the text amendment secured and the design concept now allowed, the developers turned to the project itself, and the need to achieve a conditional rezoning request. Eckel said there have been over 20 meetings with locals to discuss the project, including walking tours, drop ins at Majik Beanz Espresso, and onsite visits. GHK set up a website about the project after plans were first revealed.

“It’s a super tight-knit community, and the stakeholders of Carolina Beach that are coming are literally coming with good ideas and trying to make the plan better, which is exactly what we hope for,” Eckel said in a phone interview Friday. “We’re glad that our education on what we’re trying to do is working, first and foremost.” 

The conceptual design includes sizable green space and promises to preserve lots of heritage oaks on site, some over 90 years old, Eckel said (the town has no tree retention regulations). There will be a multi-use path through the property, an extension of the island greenway system, collaboration with local mural artists, and an in-house service that offers Uber-like ride ordering, but with golf carts. 

One week after town council approved the text amendment, Eckel emailed town manager Bruce Oakley to ask if planning director Jeremy Hardison would be allowed to join the developers for “a quick trip down to Florida,” in order to scope out some developments that could offer inspiration for the design of the Proximity. 

“We think it could be good for all of us to go down as we start to drill down on the plan and discuss architectural inspiration,” Eckel wrote. 

Oakley responded that the offer was appreciated: “However, after discussing with legal counsel we feel it’s probably not appropriate for him to join you guys.”

At the meeting Thursday, members of the planning commission said they were pleased with the presentation, praising the development team for responding to community feedback and making plans clear. Two locals who spoke emphasized the need for this development to be integrated in a way that offers actual maneuverability in and out via foot and bike, and doesn’t make traffic unsafe.

There was lots of talk about the conditions the commission would recommend compelling the developers to abide by. The conditions at this time include vows to minimize light pollution and to prohibit any sort of rental of less than 90 days. 

Town leaders would like a traffic signal at the corner of Winner Avenue and Lake Park Boulevard, around the site’s southwest corner. Eckel said the development team will invest up to $300,000 to improve that intersection, which will involve approaching the N.C. Department of Transportation alongside the town.

There was also a desire from some commissioners to use a sliver of town-owned property on Winner Avenue, south of the property, for a walking connection into the Proximity. After much back-and-forth involving Franck, the attorney, that idea was transcribed vaguely so that it would not be a requirement; but it is currently being evaluated, Eckel said.

Town council will consider the conditional rezoning application for the Proximity on Nov. 9. The planning commission is an advisory board and council makes the final call on approving land use requests.

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