WILMINGTON — A contentious public hearing about a proposed gas station coming to 17th Street had multiple community members and some council members speaking out against the deal.
“To be clear, this has nothing to do with Wawa,” Tinyz Tavern owner Jay Ruth said. “It’s about pushing small, independent businesses out.”
Tinyz is one of multiple businesses — PT’s Old-Fashioned Grille, Eclipse Hair Salon, Hensler Surgical, and Hamm Hearing Aid Center — affected by the rezoning of Wawa. The Pennsylvania corporation has been a Northeast staple for more than 50 years.
Plans are for the Samelin Center strip mall to be demolished, along with a former Pizza Hut, an insurance business and the hearing aid’s office. In its stead, a 2.4-acre gas station will be constructed at the corner of Wellington Avenue.
Ruth, along with multiple nearby residents and business owners, disclosed dissatisfaction to city council members with the $13-billion corporation choosing a place that has four fuel stations already in a 2-mile radius, with a fifth on the way. Sheetz is coming to Independence and Shipyard boulevards and is allowed by-right.
Council member Charlie Rivenbark agreed with residents’ concerns.
“I can tell you, we won’t have as many people speaking out at that because it’s vacant land,” he said about Sheetz, to a packed house in council chambers Tuesday. “I have a real problem with the relocation of small businesses.”
Rivenbark and Kevin Spears voted against Wawa’s rezoning. The company is asking for the property to be changed from office and institutional, assigned in the ‘90s, to community business conditional district for retail use, associated fuel pumps, and an onsite restaurant.
It passed the city planning board in a 4-1 vote last month before moving to council.
“It feels so weird when I agree with Charlie,” Spears said. “This is a huge concern. Are these businesses failing? No, they’re active businesses.”
The Samelin Center property is owned by Dr. Tom Melin. Ruth told PCD last month the businesses in the strip mall were informed of Wawa’s purchase of the shopping center through a public notice. The landlord didn’t contact them ahead of time.
“Was the offer for you to purchase this property out there?” Spears asked Ruth.
“That was definitely something we would have been interested in, to be 100% honest with you, sir,” answered Ruth, who explained he rented his property from Melin.
Wawa approached the owners of four parcels to purchase their properties last year; the locations weren’t on the market. The vacant Pizza Hut sold for $1.2 million, according to New Hanover County property records; the insurance company located next to it, owned by Daniel Purham, does not have a price listed yet, nor does Samelin Center or Hamm Hearing Aid.
“I would have thought that somebody would have picked up the telephone, at least going face-to-face to talk to these people,” Mayor Bill Saffo said to Wawa attorney Sam Potter. “That’s just bad business.”
The Wawa attorney agreed but clarified he doesn’t represent Melin: “If I were the landlord, I would’ve done that myself.”
Samelin Center property manager Laura Schauer, who works for Melin, told PCD last month she didn’t have permission to tell the tenants in September, when the plans transpired. The “attorneys hadn’t made it clear how they were going to use the property,” she said.
In addition to PT’s and Tinyz Tavern, Eclipse Salon and Hensler Surgical, the latter is Melin’s business, will also have to move.
“They’ve been there a long time, they’ve paid their dues,” Rivenbark said of PT’s and Tinyz. “I don’t know that there’s anything we can do that would prevent that, but I don’t like it. I just think there’s too many other quality corners [for the gas station].”
Potter confirmed Wawa has looked across all of Wilmington, and found up to 10 sites suitable for its development. He added it was a competitive market, though.
The 5,500-square-foot facility will be the first to come to southeastern North Carolina and the second in the state. Wawa has more than 900 stores nationwide. Representatives presented its plans to council, primarily focused on traffic impacts it will have in the area.
Multiple people spoke out about the overly congested 17th Street, due to volume coming from multiple medical offices, residences and Novant-New Hanover Regional Medical Center. According to the North Carolina Department of Transportation, roughly 4,200 vehicles travel daily on Wellington Avenue and 28,000 drive along 17th Street.
A traffic impact analysis, under review by NCDOT, determined the gas station will add 129 more trips in the peak morning hours and 46 in the evening.
“Traffic is backed up, where you’re already only getting three to five cars through on a stoplight,” resident Daniel Prince said during the public hearing. “To put something of that magnitude right there, that close to that stoplight, is going to do nothing but increase the amount of accidents that are already at that light.”
Potter said the company has plans to address the intersection to help alleviate clogging. It includes closing off existing driveways and moving the 17th Street entrance farther from the signalized intersection at Wellington.
“The majority of traffic will be entering right in, right out from 17th Street,” Colin Kinton, the traffic engineer, said.
Wawa will also improve access onto Wellington by realigning the left turn lanes from 17th Street. The company is improving pedestrian crosswalks and installing a red-flashing push signal.
Wawa maintained all of this would help with traffic.
“It’s disingenuous to say, honestly, that traffic is going to be better,” Ruth said to council. “Let’s just be blunt: There’s no chance traffic is going to get better with a gas station that’s running that many people through on a regular basis.”
“I’m glad somebody’s doing this and it’s on your nickel,” Rivenbark told the Wawa representatives of the upgrades. “But, I mean, you were required to do a lot of these things.”
Wawa said it was also doing more, specifically for the pediatric medical offices adjacent to the property. Dr. Christopher Young, who represents the Property Owners Association at Wellington Pointe, said they have been in negotiations with Wawa for six months. Wawa is not buying their properties, but the location abuts the project.
“Previously, there was a cross connection between our site and the doctors’ parcel,” Nadean Shovels, civil analyst with Kimely-Horn engineers out of Raleigh, told council. “We are removing that to just prevent any disruptions to their patients through there.”
The doctors expressed concerns about increased foot traffic and asked for more safety measures, such as installing cameras — one already is in the vicinity — more lighting and buffers, putting up fencing, and adding a perpetual parking easement for more parking on the doctors’ offices property.
“Wawa has accommodated us in everything we’ve asked for,” Young told council.
Shovels also said they’re bringing stormwater needs up to current standards, adding an infiltration pond and installing new pipes to collect water runoff.
Wawa is paving a new sidewalk on Wellington and adding a multi-use trail along 17th Street, as well as saving “several protected and heritage trees on the site,” per a tree survey conducted.
Potter called Wawa a “cultural institution,” having studied law in Philadelphia, and said it will bring Samelin Center “from what looks like the ‘80s and ‘90s — actually probably a ‘70s development scheme — into a 2020s project.”
The buildings were constructed in the 1960s. The Tinyz Tavern owner took issue with the statement.
“I strongly disagree that this is run down,” Ruth said. “We keep our properties up.”
Potter called the area a redevelopment site and said that’s why the owners agreed to sell.
“Because it’s worth more as something else than what it is today,” he said. “And whether that’s a Wawa or a medical building, or a mini storage or a carwash, residential buildings or apartments, I don’t know what it’ll be, but it will be something.”
Paymin Nadimi, real estate project engineer with Wawa, said the stores are all corporate-owned, and confirmed none have local franchises or investors. The 17th Street location would employ roughly 50 to 60 people, a fifth of which are manager positions, all to receive benefits, bonuses, 401k, and be allowed to participate in Wawa’s stock program.
“Actually 40% is owned by employees like me and our associates and free of charge to us,” Nadimi said.
He also pointed out the company started the Wawa Foundation in 2014 and has contributed more than $125 million to organizations, including American Red Cross, Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, and juvenile diabetes.
“We try to build a very close connection with the communities in which we’re located,” Nadimi said. “You guys can check out our YouTube videos of marriages that have happened in Wawa, where people are proposing.”
Dorian Cromartie, who ran for the New Hanover County school board last year, told council the corporation should prove first it’s centered on the community’s needs before boasting as much.
“All I’m saying is, for them to get up and to say that they’re for community, they’re for building families, but haven’t done any work — and as you all know, I’m one person that believes in doing the work for the community before you say ‘I have community connections’ — that’s not right,” Cromartie said.
Rivenbark was clear the vote of council was only to make sure Wawa followed all necessary procedures to allow for the rezoning. Council has no say over how property owners choose to sell their land.
“We don’t drive the market,” Rivenbark said. “The market always will take care of itself. We’re being asked tonight to make sense of the zoning there and that’s all we’re being asked to do. But I believe in a person’s property rights. … And if for some reason this did not fly tonight, nothing would prevent the owner of that property from turning right around tomorrow and selling to the next person that came along.”
John Clell Hamm of Hamm Hearing Aid Center, one of the properties sold to Wawa, spoke in favor of the redevelopment. He has served Wilmington for 22 years, helping more than 10,000 hearing patients. Though he expressed empathy for his neighbors and the “unfortunate” ramifications of having to relocate, he said the sale will help his office.
“I wasn’t going to speak tonight because I didn’t want to seem self-serving,” he said. “But the people who want to develop the land for Wawa came in and made me, as a small business owner, an offer that was fair and reasonable. It gave me the opportunity to potentially expand my business to help our patients. l will be able to invest in another property with more staff, to be able to continue helping patients for years to come.”
PT’s Olde Fashioned Grill announced last week it would be relocating to the Crossroads at Independence on Carolina Beach Road. Ruth has another Tinyz Tavern on Gordon Road and told PCD last month he would be looking to potentially relocate his flagship bar in Hampstead.
Spears made one last pitch to the Wawa group for a smaller version of the plan that wouldn’t harm the business owners.
“I mean, Pizza Hut is closed down — can’t we just put a mini Wawa where the Pizza Hut used to be [instead of] running these businesses out from this area?” Spears asked.
The audience erupted in applause.
Mayor Saffo, Mayor Pro-Tem Margaret Haynes, council members Clifford Barnett and Luke Waddell voted in favor of the rezoning, and Rivenbark and Spears dissented. Neil Anderson was absent.
All ordinance changes have to undergo a second reading unless council successfully votes to waive it, with unanimous support required. The motion for a second reading failed by one vote, with Spears dissenting. The rezoning application will return for another vote at next month’s meeting.
“I dissented so the neighbors and businesses would know that someone heard them,” Spears wrote to Port City Daily Friday. “It’s easy to say that we understand their perspectives but still waive the second reading so they feel instantly defeated. I doubt if any council members change their minds, but you never know. Maybe WaWa decides to meet them in the middle by scaling something back, it’s just an opportunity for a change of heart if some fellow council members decide to do so.”
Anderson would not go on the record with his thoughts on the rezoning ahead of making his decision public next month.
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