Thursday, June 13, 2024

Western banks: ‘Downtown riverfront’ plan amendment to allow 5-story structures, public input welcome

An amendment to clarify place type of the western banks of the Cape Fear River has a draft ready for public view, who can also provide feedback until June 28. (Courtesy New Hanover County)

WILMINGTON — After more than a year of studying how to place different development types along the western bank of the Cape Fear River, New Hanover County now wants public feedback on the proposed amendment to its comprehensive plan.

READ MORE: Residential component on CF River’s west bank dominates conversation at planning board meeting

County staff are putting forth a change in the land use between the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and Isabel Holmes Bridge from urban mixed-use to downtown riverfront. UMX was the most intense development allowance, concerning residents and local leaders who didn’t want to see heavy development in heavily flooded areas of the western banks.

“There are environmental constraints, there are concerns about existing sunny day flooding,” planning director Rebekah Roth told the planning board Thursday regarding an area with substantial wetlands and some uplands — higher ground to build on.

County commissioners asked planning staff to conduct research and determine what kind of zoning and development should be proposed, taking into account environmental conditions. The Battleship reported experiencing 1,000 flooding events in the vicinity in the last decade, a 6,200% increase in the last 70-plus years.

Changes to the comprehensive plan were spurred by two large-scale projects — Battleship Point and Wilmington Hotel and Spa — put forth a few years ago, which have been tabled since.

The first step in creating a cohesive vision for the western banks is updating the place type of this area in the comprehensive plan; the planning staff has recommended downtown riverfront. There are upward of a dozen privately owned parcels in the vicinity, which have primarily been used for maritime and industrial needs, with one exception — a parcel north of the Isabel Holmes Bridge classified as commerce. 

The zoning currently allowed in the area is regional business and industrial and will be the next changes discussed, should the planning board and commissioners agree to the change of the downtown riverfront under the new amendment.

In this area, staff has recommended some commercial uses, residential and public spaces that mirror the current downtown riverfront, all lower density than UMX. Buildings on the western bank would be allowed to be five stories.

“Uses that are less susceptible to flooding impacts and that provide a public benefit, such as recreational and civic uses are encouraged,” the draft amendment indicates. “Commercial and temporary uses, such as warehousing water-related businesses, and outdoor event spaces, that are less likely to put people at risk are also envisioned. Any residential uses should be limited and associated with a mixed-use project.”

Roth told the planning board earlier this spring she utilized the Battleship as the focal point in the district. Previously, height was allowed to be between 100 to 150 feet as UMX; now it will be capped at 75 feet.

“What is stated in the amendment right now is making sure that it’s no taller than the USS Battleship,” Roth told the planning board Thursday.

The original draft amendment eliminated residential uses on the western bank; it’s been added back at the planning board’s behest.

“There were concerns that without a residential component that it would not be feasible to actually have a project in the area, which would mean that you would continue to see industrial brownfields,” Roth said at the meeting.

Leaders have expressed a desire to clean up the western banks, which have become a dumping ground for abandoned vessels and other industrial scraps. The county has proposed in the amendment to potentially found a brownfields program and reduce its impact due to frequent flooding.

“That was one of the things we didn’t want to see in this area,” Roth continued, regarding industrial uses.

The new amendment requires any structures be resilient to flooding — which could include flood-proofing them, elevating foundations, landscaping with salt-tolerant plants, trees and shrubs, and ensuring stormwater filtration systems.

It also outlines limiting public infrastructure investment, as the price of connecting water and sewer to the area is expected to be costly and should be supported by private funds. This also includes diverting from the public any maintenance costs on infrastructure, potentially imperiled by rising waters.

For instance, one of the recommendations is to bury utility lines in waterproof conduits and construct utility poles resistant to corrosion. Developers would foot the bill on building roadways by 2 feet above base flood elevation and pump stations are required on higher ground as well.

The update to the comprehensive plan will ensure the community, property owners and developers are “on the same page” for what can be constructed, Roth told the planning board. Staff also want to see greenways, public pathways and spaces for use among the natural environment.

Staff also proposed equipment for a water and salinity-level monitoring study along the western banks to this year’s budget, but it was removed in the county manager’s final suggestion to commissioners. This would have helped staff keep abreast of the area and adjust policies and standards as needed.

To date, conversations on the amendment have happened with local officials; now it’s open to the public for feedback.

“Everybody sitting in this room has got some preconceived idea what the other side of the river should look like when it’s finished,” planning board member Hansen Matthews told the board last week. “Wherever you’re sitting and watching this meeting, this is your chance to get involved.”

The public can submit their thoughts on the plan through June 28 by emailing Roth at by noon on June 28. Afterward, staff will organize the comments to present to the planning board before a public hearing, scheduled for July 11. If recommended, it goes to the board of commissioners by Aug. 5 for another public hearing.

“If they have questions, if they have concerns, they can report it to this board, to staff and to the commissioners early enough in the process where we’re able to take those concerns and those questions into consideration before we start moving anything through a public hearing process,” Roth said.

[Ed. note: The article has been updated to clarify the downtown riverfront plan amendment refers to the land’s place type and is separate from the zoning of the western banks, which still remain industrial and regional business. PCD regrets any confusion.]

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Shea Carver
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.

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