WILMINGTON — A path has cleared for the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO) to continue plans to rehabilitate a century-old building on North Fourth Street. Slated to become a multi-modal transportation center and WMPO headquarters in the Brooklyn Art District, project costs have risen due to inflation, WMPO executive director Mike Kozlosky told council Tuesday.
Last month the project was put on hold while leaders attempted to secure more funding. Kozlosky informed council that New Hanover County indicated it would provide 50% of the local match needed, leaving the city to cover the remainder.
Renovating the historic building is 80% funded by WMPO’s Surface Transportation Block Grant program, with the city providing a 20% match. The old Thomas Grocery building has deteriorated floors, molded ceilings and structural damage. It also sustained damage from Hurricane Florence in 2018.
The building at 525 N. Fourth Street abuts the current Wave Transit Padgett Station and will be the transportation center housing Wave Transit, the downtown trolley and the inter-city buses serviced by Greyhound. It also will include WMPO offices and be the future site for a passenger train station.
The N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT) deeded the property to the city in 2017, and in 2019 estimated renovation costs to be $1.7 million. The price tag has risen substantially since then; the city and WMPO originally allocated $3.1 million for its entirety.
During February’s WMPO meeting, Kozlosky relayed to board members — including city councilmen Charlie Rivenbark and Neil Anderson and county commissioners Deb Hayes and Jonathan Barfield — the total project had increased to $5.4 million. It included a 30% inflation estimate and 15% contingency costs, as well as 5% administration fees.
Last year, design consultant HDR said the plan’s budget grew due to the rise in prices of mechanical systems, concrete, steel, wood and roofing materials. Less competition also affected it, with only two proposals coming in (the scope of the project requires specific knowledge and skills since it includes detailed historic renovation) when the city opened bids in January. The lowest estimate was $3.5 million — $647,319 “over the engineers’ estimate and greater than the overall project budget,” Kozlosky told council Tuesday.
To mitigate the funding shortfall, options included altering construction plans — such as doing away with the $60,000 proposed WMPO board room, which would then require redesign approval by the State Historic Preservation, the city and NCDOT — or accessing more funding.
“We have estimated the need and additional funds in the amount of $2,341,836,” Kozlosky told council.
He said the remaining $1,873,469 for WMPO to cover would be accessible through its direct attributable funds available for the fiscal year; the local match would be $486,387. Kozlosky suggested accessing $136,781 in the city budget’s unallocated fund, leaving $331,586 to be split between the city and county at $165,793 each.
“From start to finish here, the city’s contribution is to be approximately what?” councilman Neil Anderson asked.
“The city had already contributed $766,000,” Kozlosky answered.
The additional costs would put it around $900,000, he continued: “One of the things I will say is, I’m trying to be conservative because I don’t want to come back up here again and try to ask for more money.”
Councilman Rivenbark confirmed the size of the finished design would be 7,200 square feet, compared to WMPO’s current 3,500-square-foot offices on Third Street.
“$794 a square foot is tacky,” Rivenbark balked, after he suggested it would be better to tear down the structure and “start over.” He clarified he knew razing the building wasn’t an option, since the grant money is earmarked for historical renovation.
“So if that’s what everybody wants to do, I guess we go ahead and do it,” Rivenbark added.
After the 525 N. Fourth Street building is renovated, the city will own and maintain it, as well as its surrounding grounds.
Council voted unanimously to fund increases to the project’s costs. New Hanover County will vote on matching its portion at the Mar. 21 meeting.
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