Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Developers’ $8M investment slated to transform downtown Wilmington’s Soda Pop District

The former Coca-Cola bottling plant and distribution center at 921 Princess St. has been purchased by developers, along with properties across three blocks in downtown’s Soda Pop District, slated to become retail, office and restaurant spaces. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — Soon enough, properties in downtown’s Soda Pop District will welcome new tenants, including makers, restaurateurs, retailers and manufacturers along Princess Street, as part of a joint venture between Charleston-based Coast Capital Partners and Sandy Thorpe and Andy Hewitt of Parastream Development.

Thorpe and Hewitt acquired three buildings and a vacant parcel in the 900 block of downtown’s Princess Street, including the 76,000 square-foot Coca-Cola building, the 920 and 1002 Princess street locations across the way, and 909 Market Street. Renovations are slated to begin as soon as possible. 

The almost $8 million sale closed Friday, Thorpe and Hewitt announced at a briefing Tuesday morning, among city and county officials, Wilmington Downtown Inc. staff, and members of the media.

The real estate development team are behind the 1950’s car dealership that was upfitted into Hi-Wire Brewing, located a block over at 1020 Princess Street. The Asheville-based brewery opened its 8,000-square-foot taproom at the end of 2020. Plans are underway for its adjoining Princess Street-facing vacancy to become a restaurant, Thorpe confirmed.

“More news will be coming soon about that,” he said, noting the restaurateur slated to take over the space already operates eateries elsewhere in North Carolina, though none in Wilmington yet.

“​​[We] started looking at investing here a few years ago,” Hewitt explained, as he gestured toward 921 Princess Street, the 1930’s building adorned with its original Coca-Cola sign. “We kept coming back to this area, its proximity to downtown, its proximity to the schools and neighborhoods, its proximity to the hospital. There was … a lot of opportunity. You had historic buildings with a lot of character that were either vacant or underutilized. And that kind of spurred our first investment at 1020 [Princess St.].”

The area has seen a revival of sorts over the last decade; Folks Cafe is located a few blocks up and the Cucalorus Film Festival headquarters, Jengo’s Playhouse, is across from Hi-Wire. Newer businesses have opened recently, including Fountain of Youth Juice Bar, Retroscape, the Northside Food Co-op, and Craftspace — the latter which is already anchored in the Coca-Cola building

Craftspace is an example of local manufacturing the developers hope to continue to draw in. The company purchases shipping containers and upcycles them to become pool cabanas, workout rooms, learning spaces, offices, homes, and other small-order suites that can be outfitted for residential or commercial use. Craftspace owner Bryan Kristof said the company — which opened in January 2020 and is unaffiliated with The Cargo District a mile away — has seen a 40% increase in business over the last year. 

Currently, it’s working on a dozen projects, 10 of which are local, Kristof confirmed. As such, the business has increased its staff to keep up with demand and has gone from occupying 2,500 square feet of space in the back of the Coca-Cola warehouse to 5,000 square feet.

WDI president and CEO Holly Childs listens to Brian Kristof talk about operating Craftspace in the back warehouse of the Coca-Cola building. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“Eventually, we’re going to take this whole space,” Kristof said, indicating 14,000 square feet.

Thorpe and Hewitt are exploring options to work with Craftspace for creative office ideas that tenants can utilize if they so choose in the Coca-Cola building.

“We’re working towards modular building certification,” Kristof said of Craftspace. “So we will get approved at the state level and we can build these different container spaces within the warehouse, do all the inspections that are done at the state level. So that’ll really be a key to our business model as we move forward and grow into this space.” 

Thorpe said other tenants in the warehouse will consist of “people who are making stuff who need to be downtown, but who get lost in industrial parks.” The urban flex space will provide 2,000 to 14,000 square feet to work in, he added.

Two other buildings as part of the developers’ three-block acquisition are at the crossroads of 9th and Princess streets. Both 920 and 1002 Princess will be renovated as either restaurant or retail space, while the other property at 909 Market Street will remain offices, Thorpe confirmed: “We’ve got short-term leases going in there right now, but that’s not an immediate phase one renovation — it’s phase two.”

Phase one will focus on the Coca-Cola building and the two Princess Street buildings. The project will require different contractors for each development, with Monteith Construction handling the Coca-Cola renovation, while Old School Builders and Co. will likely conduct rehabilitation of 920 and 1002 Princess streets, the developers explained.

“A site of this magnitude and diversity doesn’t come along often,” Hewitt said. “You’ve got historic buildings that need restoration, which is something that Sandy and I care deeply about.”

“The adaptive reuse is something a lot of people have been talking about, especially in the land development code rewrite,” Mayor Bill Saffo said. “That was one of the things that a lot of citizens shared with us was adaptive reuse: to try to take all existing buildings that we have and to reuse them in a way for today’s day and time.”

Coca-Cola owned the 921 Princess Street property as a bottling plant before it became the company’s warehouse and distribution center. According to the Wilmington Business Journal, the building was on the market for a decade when Osprey Landing purchased it, along with 5 acres including several surrounding parcels, for $1.5 million in 2015. The developer had plans to possibly bring a grocery store and offer more retail space, though nothing came to fruition.

The 2021 acquisition, which Thorpe and Hewitt said they’ve been in talks about for two years, comprises over 7 acres. Hewitt said 920 Princess Street was the home of the original soda pop company.

The two buildings at the corner of 9th and Princess streets, across from the Coca-Cola property, also will undergo renovation for more restaurants and/or retailers. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“That’s where they made Sun Drop,” Councilman Charlie Rivenbark chimed in, “and that was even more popular around here than Coca-Cola was.”

1002 Princess Street was home to the original electric soda pop company, Hewitt added. A few years ago, it was slated to become Wilmington’s first co-op brewery, Tidewater, which had launched a crowd-funding campaign and was close to opening when Hurricane Florence hit the area. The building sustained damage, including its roof peeling back, and the project never was completed.

Hewitt and Thorpe have reached out to the Historic Wilmington Foundation about the landmarks and said they want to include pieces of its history in the renovation process if they can.

“I definitely recommend you guys keep the Coca-Cola sign,” Mayor Saffo said.

Once phase two begins, its process will be dictated by what the neighborhood needs, Hewitt explained: “We’ll ask, ‘What do we have here now? … What is the market demand?’”

Part of that phase will be addressing the empty lot across from 1002 Princess Street. Though Thorpe and Hewitt didn’t specify what they foresee, they confirmed it will create a mixed-use urban environment with residences — “where people are actually living, working and able to recreate,” Hewitt said.

The developers said they will announce tenants for some of the spaces in coming weeks.

The front portion of the 76,000-square-foot Coca-Cola warehouse on Princess Street. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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