Thursday, July 25, 2024

‘This will be a gamechanger’: No movement on aggressive proposal for across-the-river development

On the lesser known side of the Cape Fear River, a development team is trying to turn a scrapyard property into three high-rise residences, and start a new era in riverfront development. (Port City Daily/Johanna F. Still)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — In the historic courthouse Thursday night, on one of the first crisp evenings of the season, Frank Pasquale made his pitch for westward expansion along downtown’s riverfront. A retired developer who moved from New Jersey five years ago, Pasquale is now leading an attention-grabbing campaign to develop 8 acres of land across the Cape Fear River. 

Pasquale and his compatriots envision remediating Peter Point — a peninsula at which the Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear rivers converge, opposite the Wilmington Convention Center — and then building skyscrapers upon it. 

The three proposed towers could each be as tall as 240 feet, and would include 550 condominium units, 300 apartment units, a hotel and more if all goes favorable for Pasquale and his team.

First floated in late September, Battleship Point began publicly weaving through county channels Thursday night with its first stop at the planning board. 

Configuring the project’s regulatory pathway was complicated by its unique positioning and aggressive development plans. The initial idea — to couple detached property further north into a rezoning application that would satisfy acreage requirements for another district — was scrapped.

The solution was a two-parter: First, developers have proposed the creation of a new zoning district, tailored to their site and dreams. Second: a rezoning request that would apply the new zoning district to the Battleship Point property.

The “riverfront mixed-use zoning” (RUMXZ) district, if created, would offer 240-feet height limits and 100-unit-per-acre density, and would only be available to parcels sized between 5 and 10 acres. (City of Wilmington allows 240-foot buildings in the central business district north of Red Cross Street.)

Delays in the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization and N.C. Department of Transportation’s review of the project complicated the developers’ intentions of presenting both applications on the same night, Pasquale said.

Instead, they pitched only the creation of the new RUMXZ district at the planning board meeting Thursday, with the rezoning scheduled next month. Pasquale received word prior to the meeting from board member Donna Girardot that she planned to table action on the new district until next month, so as to consider both applications at the same time.

“This is going to be a game changer if we go ahead through this,” Girardot said at the meeting. 

Chair Jeffrey Petroff echoed the desire for seeing both proposals together: “I feel a bit handicapped in the manner that we’re reviewing a zoning ordinance really written specifically for a project, without reviewing the project, so I’ve got some hesitation from the start.”

Battleship Point’s proponents have represented the proposal as a chance to rehabilitate the neglected subject site, long used as a scrapyard, and erect a fledgling skyline to mirror that of downtown Wilmington. (Around 200 tons of debris have been cleared from the site, Pasquale said, “and we have quite a bit more to go.”)

“Mayor Saffo, on the east side of us, says that the river is the jewel of Wilmington,” Pasquale told the planning board. “Well, it’s kind of embarrassing the way we treat our jewel.”

Also on high alert are various environmentalists and experts, who, wielding public data on climate change, argue any development across from downtown should be undertaken with extreme caution. 

“That project as it’s proposed, it would be a dramatic move for that area,” Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette said. “And so part of me kind of wonders if there’s not a lot of, kind of, positioning going on here with some of these requests.”

The threat of rising sea levels over the next few decades, coupled with the pervasive nuisance flooding that already plagues many low-lying areas in the county, should be analyzed as county leaders march toward creating a new zoning district that would encourage high-density development in an environmentally sensitive region, according to Robert Parr. 

Parr, a local advocate who received a master’s degree in biological oceanography prior to attending medical school, opposed the creation of the RUMXZ zoning district during Thursday’s meeting. 

The ensuing project would be located at the funnel point of the entire Cape Fear River watershed, Parr said, which is the largest in the state at 9,300 square miles. Moreover, unlike other areas in the county, it’s at risk of flooding from both the watershed and storm surges, in addition to sea level rise. 

“The soils there don’t drain particularly well,” Burdette said. “It’s a very wet area. Most of the elevation is well below where you see normal, sunny day high tide.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts sea levels rising in that specific part of the Cape Fear River between 0.89 feet and 3.22 feet by 2050, depending on level of severity.

“This is data that you need to know, to see if it supports intense uses. This is extremely important when we get a slow-moving storm like Matthew, Floyd, Florence, Hurricane Harvey,” Parr said. “All this water comes down to the confines in the district.”

Using Charleston as an example, Parr explained how the S.C. city endorsed a plan last April to build a nearly $2 billion, 8-mile-long seawall around its coastal perimeter. In Charleston, Parr told the planning board, city officials would not spring for such a plan that would welcome high-density development into a flood-prone, coastal area. 

“They would not think of putting high density in a triple-flood-threat zone,” he told the board.

On the development team, Pasquale is joined by real estate agent Kirk Pugh and attorney Jim Lea, who practices extensively in family law. 

Lea is currently representing Julia Olson-Boseman, chairwoman of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, who is under investigation by the N.C. State Bar

In an interview, Pasquale said his wife had played tennis with a woman who had previously moved into River Place — the condominium building downtown built through a public-private partnership between developers and the City of Wilmington. 

“She would tell my wife all the issues she would have with her condo at River Place, and my wife is a wonderful person, and she doesn’t have a lot of patience for stuff like that,” Pasquale said. 

“She told her girlfriend, ‘You need to call Frank. He’s built buildings for 30 years, and if you saw the last building he built, you wouldn’t believe your eyes.’” 

Thus began Pasquale’s involvement in consulting residents of River Place: “We uncovered one defect after another as we tried to determine what the root causes of the mold and the air leaking and what was really going on there,” he said.

New Hanover County Building Safety personnel were later apprised of alleged air leakage in River Place. An August staff document regarding the situation stated: “Mr. Pasquale has been acting as a consultant to a group of RiverPlace residents. The credentials for Mr. Pasquale are unknown.”

Pasquale said he took the information to Lea, a tennis buddy of his: “I went to him and I said, ‘This is the situation.’ He said, ‘I know just the guy to go to,’ and he sent them on their way.” 

Lea’s firm, along with multiple others, represented “a number of individual condominium owners at River Place Condominiums” as of February, according to WWAY.

Then Lea approached Pasquale for help on a development project in Brunswick County, which ultimately led Pasquale to discover Peters Point and fall in love with the site. 

“We found out that the property had been on the market at one point,” Pasquale said. “We called the realtor and said, ‘Listen, if you’re still interested we’d like to see the property.’ Kirk and I drove out. We didn’t make it much past the fence as we were driving in, and I decided I was buying that piece of property.”

After Pasquale moved to Wilmington from N.J., he lost one of his children at only 35 years old, he said: “I wanted to find a way to memorialize his life, for his four nephews — three of which, they will never meet him.”

To honor his son, who was passionate about community service, Pasquale plans to purchase 24 units in Battleship Point, and then turn them over to organizations like Tunnel to Towers Foundation so they can be used for charitable housing.

As Parr spoke to the planning board, Pugh moved over behind Pasquale to whisper into his partner’s ear. 

“Unfortunately, we’re not here to discuss flooding tonight,” Pasquale said, upon returning to the podium. 

“The technical aspects of this project will be discussed at a later time in front of this committee after it’s been reviewed by the engineering department and NCDOT, CAMA and the Army Corps of Engineers.” 

Toby Keeton of Kersting Architecture, the development team’s firm of choice, spoke next; he emphasized the main plaza of Battleship Point will be raised approximately 32 feet above the grade.

“We have to decide if we’re going to meet those challenges with retreat,” Keeton said. “Or, if we’re going to build a new kind of city, are we going to change our city and adapt it to meet those challenges?” 

Next month, the planning board will consider, on the same night, both the application for the new zoning district and the Battleship Point rezoning request (to the new zoning district). Should it be successful, the development team would then receive the final word from the board of commissioners, possibly early next year.

The project timeline included in the application says Brownfield completion could be finished in 12 months, and groundbreaking could take place in mid-2023. The project completion was estimated for December 2025. 

“Most of the time with visions, they’re spectacular, they actually are the energy that drives us forward. But those visions have to depend on data,” Parr said in an interview. “To get the conversation started, there has to be data that is distributed and promulgated, not only to the stakeholders at that meeting, but to the general public.”

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