Wednesday, May 25, 2022

After three-month delay, city to start N. Front Streetscape project following Azalea Fest

The North Front Streetscape Project will get underway in April, after the N.C. Azalea Festival, and is slated for completion by September. (Port City Daily/Johanna Still)

WILMINGTON — It’s been a bumpy road getting the North Front Streetscape Improvement Project completed in a timely manner. What started in 2010 is now 12 years in the making — and downtown businesses will have to wait a tad bit longer before crews begin replacing 1940’s water and sewage piping, as well as install new lighting, pavement, curbing and sidewalks in the 200 and 300 blocks of North Front.

Funded by the city’s 2014 voter-approved transportation bond, the project’s first leg, a $1.8 million expense, was completed along Front Street, from Market to Chestnut, over six months in 2010.

The second portion, to cost $3.5 million, was initially slated to begin in the fall 2021. Pushback from North Front business owners — who decried it would hurt holiday sales, especially needed after coming out of Covid-19 shutdowns and restrictions — led council to delaying the work until winter 2022.

At the time the city expected the six-month project to be complete by May. Monday, the city noted in a release, the work won’t start until spring, with the project wrapping in September.

Supply-chain issues stalled the project, spokesperson Jennifer Dandron told Port City Daily in January. Materials for city projects are only ordered once a contract is in place, which was awarded to T.A. Loving Company in November. Shortly thereafter, the company learned the pipes they needed were on backorder until June 2022.

To get back on track, the city, engineers and Cape Fear Public Utility Authority — a partner in the project, paying $900,000 toward the costs — found alternative materials: a “large diameter ductile iron pipe with PVC pipe for portions of the utility piping in the project,” Dandron explained last month, assuring new supplies also meet regulation standards.

The pipes will arrive by the end of March, with work projected to begin along North Front, from Chestnut to Walnut streets, by April — right after the N.C. Azalea Festival takes place, Apr. 7-11. It will push construction into the height of summer’s tourist season.

Terry Espy — president of Downtown Business Alliance (DBA), a nonprofit that supports and strengthens tourism to downtown — said the group is meeting tonight to discuss marketing strategies to inform the public and tourists area businesses are open.

“The city can only post safety signs,” she said. “DBA wants to figure out how to continue to get people up to the doors and spend money.”

The two blocks of North Front affected by the construction also happen to be the closest to Riverfront Park, which is bringing more than 20 concerts to downtown in the spring and summer. During its inaugural season last year, the venue welcomed 125,000 people to the downtown area, many of whom patronized bars and restaurants before and after shows.

And that doesn’t include the tourists already in town vacationing.

“They’re going to be here, people are coming,” Espy said. “We’ve got to work together — regarding directions, marketing, how to get people up and down those two blocks safely.”

The streetscape project will occur in two phases; vehicular traffic will close off one block at a time, as crews fix underground piping. Sidewalks will remain open and crews will reopen the block to cars once a temporary surface is applied over the piping. Then work into the next block will begin.

Espy said she believes the city has learned from the past — specifically when comparing North Front to construction that was extended along Water Street from 2017 to last fall.

“We lost four businesses because the streets were closed,” she said.

However, with the current project, the city delayed it until it wrapped other work on Chestnut, Grace, and Nutt streets, for instance.

Espy said she thinks last year’s Downtown Alive — an effort to boost restaurant business during Covid, with the city’s approval — helped provide more insight into challenges businesses face. DBA and city staff had to work more closely together to block off streets and parking spaces so there was more outdoor dining options.

“It’s not the same challenge, but I will say they’ve been a lot more proactive — not just putting up the sign saying ‘sidewalks open,'” Espy said. “The suggestion now is to team up with DBA, Downtown Alive and Wilmington Downtown Inc. on putting the word out. And if we have to throw in some marketing bucks to help, we will.”

When work concludes on the North Front Streetscape project, it will have cost $5.4 million and will update all of North Front to have a unified aesthetic.

The $44 million transportation bond that funded North Front Streetscape encompasses 37 projects, all of which have begun in some fashion, with 12 completed. The City of Wilmington is leveraging an additional $11 million from existing funds to finish them all, including sidewalk, crosswalk, intersection, roadway, and trail repairs or extensions.

CATCH UP ON PREVIOUS REPORTING:


 Have tips or comments? Email info@portcitydaily.com

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.

Related Articles