Sunday, January 23, 2022

Proposed across-the-river towers put on back burner by county planning board

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)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — An attempt to urbanize the undeveloped land across the Cape Fear River, opposite downtown Wilmington, hit a major snag Thursday evening at the planning board meeting. 

With local real estate agent Kirk Pugh and attorney Jim Lea, Frank Pasquale, a retired developer from New Jersey, has been spearheading the proposal for Battleship Point. The development would comprise three towers up to 24 stories tall containing apartments, a hotel and more.

Their vision involves unprecedented levels of construction on Peter Point near Point Harbor Road, the environmentally sensitive region at which the Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear rivers converge. The prospect has ignited a conversation about the feasibility of high-density development on the western river bank, which regularly floods in sync with the lunar cycle and could face inundation from sea level rise in future decades. 

In total, the developers need two different approvals from the board of commissioners before Battleship Point receives the blessing of the county. First, there must be a new zoning district created: the riverfront urban mixed-use district. 

Proposed by the development team with Battleship Point in mind, the new district would replace an older county zoning district relevant to riverfront property — which never sparked private sector interest. It would set a template for developers hoping to cash in on western riverfront land between Peter Point and the Isabella Holmes Bridge in the future.

Secondly comes the rezoning, a move that would put the developers’ property under the regulations associated with the zoning district they proposed. 

The planning board recommended the denial of the new zoning district, and indefinitely tabled consideration of the rezoning. 

The board of commissioners will make the final call on the creation of the new zoning district in January, should the developers elect to proceed with the process as scheduled. 

Lea told Port City Daily he and his team intend to develop the site in a way that’s responsible and environmentally sound; if left untapped, Peter Point would continue in its downslide of neglect. With a current tag of industrial zoning, alternatives to residential development along the riverfront could involve factories or other industrial uses. 

In November, Pasquale and his team made their first pitch before the planning board, describing Battleship Point as an opportunity to remediate a long-neglected swath of riverfront land used as a scrap yard, and to begin cultivating a skyline and riverwalk on the other side of the Cape Fear River.

‘THIS WILL BE A GAMECHANGER’: No movement on aggressive proposal for across-the-river development

In opposition to Battleship Point are a cadre of environmentalists and other community representatives who consider it a fool’s errand to welcome high-density residential development into what they say is literally the county’s most environmentally sensitive region. 

The development team says their project would revitalize a barren junkyard and create a flagship attraction, but their opponents think the idea would imperil the natural features at a critical point of convergence between the two rivers. 

Unlike other coastal territories in the county, Point Harbor Road is at risk from flooding not only due to storm surges and tidal events, but also because of its position as the funnel point of the Cape Fear River watershed, the state’s largest at 9,300 square miles. 

During his presentation, Pasquale acknowledged the habitual flooding known to occur in the area, citing the presence of a weather monitoring device underneath the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge that has recorded activity for decades. 

“We know this area is going to flood,” Pasquale said. “Anybody who says this is not going to flood is a fool.”

Bob Parr, who received a master’s degree in biological oceanography prior to attending medical school, has been a leading voice among the project’s opponents. He spoke at length during the November planning board meeting, at which the project was first proposed. Following that meeting, the development team incorporated more information on their plans to handle the site’s environmental sensitivities into the public application.

“This project is too big,” Parr said. “It’s in a highly dynamic, compound flood plain that has never been developed.” 

The soils on the property have “severe limitation for septic suitability,” according to a staff analysis of the project. The developer indicated an intent to construct water and sewer infrastructure necessary for connecting into existing utility lines, according to a spokesperson for Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. 

Thursday evening, local residents expressed new critiques of the project. Travis Gilbert, executive director of the Historic Wilmington Foundation, said the trio of towers and accompanying impacts would negatively affect the integrity of the U.S.S. North Carolina. 

One woman who spoke in opposition said the prospect of dining at the Pilot House and having the sunset view obscured by high-rises would be “beyond the pale.” 

A retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager said the “living shorelines” proposed by the developers would be an insufficient tactic in managing the power of the river. Leaders of both the New Hanover and Brunswick chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People co-signed a letter opposing Battleship Point. A nearby property owner was concerned about how Battleship Point would connect its roads into the surrounding network, which is now a hot spot for truckers and other industrial traffic.

Once it became evident the planning board was not inclined to bless the proposal as is, there was a quick attempt at negotiation from the development team, who asked the county leaders if they’d consider voting on the proposal with more restrictive language on building height in place.

The board, however, voted to recommend denial of the project; member Donna Girardot proposed the motion. 

The developers have 10 days from Thursday to decide whether they wish to continue pursuing the first part of their application, the creation of the new zoning district, before the board of commissioners in January. The rezoning request, the second facet, is in limbo for the time being. 

Lea, who said he is in talks with neighboring landowners to potentially put forward a more comprehensive land-use request, also provided the following statement:

“We are disappointed, but will not stop in our efforts to save and transform that land and river that surrounds it. The county and city deserve a vibrant waterfront on both sides of the river. It’s always easier to be the no-vote. It’s much harder to have vision and think ahead. We’ll continue on the positive path. There are plenty of options and we’ll pursue them.”


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