WILMINGTON — An assortment of developers and consultants worked for years to bring a student-housing project to the border regions of UNCW. At least 14 properties along a stretch of College Acres Drive were purchased in order to demolish nearly 10 acres of land north of the university. Between 2018 and 2020 the territory was rezoned to set the stage for a housing development that will include more than 100 townhome units.
Construction on the first phase will finish in time to sign leases this fall. The 45 multi-bedroom units, spread across 17 buildings, will house nearly 150 students.
Across the road, a collection of single-family homes was razed to make way for the project’s second phase: 78 units to accommodate around 250 more tenants, as well as a clubhouse, pool and dog park.
The overarching project is known as The Cottages at College Acres. Through land acquisition, the site owners amassed nearly the entire block of College Acres Drive between College Road and Racine Drive.
Greensboro-based Brown Investment Properties owns the land. According to its website, the company owns and manages 99 properties. The Cottages will be its first Wilmington property.
Lance Ramsey, director of development, said the team became aware of the opportunity on College Acres Drive, “through referrals.”
“We purchased the land from Mr. DeSpain,” Ramsey said.
According to Ramsey, David DeSpain — a developer who has previously worked on student housing projects in South Carolina, Georgia and other states — purchased the collection of single-family homes that would eventually be conglomerated to create the Cottages complex.
Property records show College Acres Realty, LLC spent millions of dollars buying homes on the street in 2019, a few months after the Wilmington City Council approved plans for the project’s first phase. In 2020, after phase two was approved, the LLC spent millions more acquiring other properties.
Ramsey said Brown Investment Properties is connected with the LLC. The hands-on work of purchasing and assembling the land was performed by DeSpain, Ramsey said. DeSpain did not respond to requests for comment.
“Mr. DeSpain, he assembles all the parcels and then takes it through planning himself,” Ramsey said. “Then he sells the whole package, all the parcels together with the planning already done.”
A few remnants of the old neighborhood remain. Three rental houses owned by a Winston Salem company are sandwiched between land owned by Brown Investment Properties. Multiple houses further down College Acres were not purchased for the project.
The tenant in one residence said he was told the house would not be available for rent next year. The resident of another neighboring house said she was told all remaining houses on the block would eventually be added to the Cottages development.
“It’s not a done deal yet, but we hope so,” Ramsey said.
Developers first brought the Cottages into the rezoning process in September 2018, when phase one — six parcels — went before the planning commission. The process kicked off while previous landowners still held the deeds to the former homes on College Acres. Under N.C. law, applying for a conditional rezoning request, like this one, requires the consent of the property owners. Even though the land had not been sold, the previous owners were already on board with the project.
Proposed project plans involved sidewalks and vegetative buffers, and the applicant spoke of capitalizing on the need for student housing surrounding UNCW’s turf. The university was, and still is, in the midst of an enrollment surge. From 2009 to 2019, UNCW had the highest enrollment growth of all public universities in the state.
UNCW Vice Chancellor of Business Affairs Miles Lackey said, at the initial planning commission meeting, he was still waiting to hear details from the developers concerning traffic, security and aesthetics. The commission consented, and the application was tabled until the following month.
By the next go-round in October, local consultant Cindee Wolf had joined the team. The site plan was revised to add 20 parking spaces, bringing the total up to 109 spaces. The project was designed to accommodate 145 tenants.
Wolf told the commission 67% of students housed on-campus drove a vehicle. This project would plan for more than 75% of its tenants bringing a car. Local residents appeared to voice concerns about litter, traffic and the potential party culture that might erupt throughout this block of College Acres. The planning commission unanimously approved the first phase of the Cottages. City council then gave the final sign-off.
Ramsey said discussions with the university over pedestrian connections never panned out.
“They haven’t really played a role at all,” he said. “We’ve tried to connect to the university with a sidewalk or with an access point, and they have not had any interest in doing so.”
Vice Chancellor Lackey said in an email it’s customary for the university to engage with adjacent property owners over matters that may impact campus and its infrastructure. In this case, the university believed the existing routes onto campus — for those needing to cross Randal Drive — are the safest options, he said.
The first phase of the Cottages project also involved deploying a now-defunct provision of city code. The developers sought the Commercial District Mixed Use (CDMU) provision, which allowed for otherwise-prohibited levels of density in exchange for a promise to include retail space in the project.
In the Cottages project, 1,900 square feet will be dedicated to retail space. Cameron Management is handling the commercial leasing, Ramsey said, and tenants have not yet been signed.
“There’s only one retail building on the parcel where Cameron is leasing right now,” Ramsey said. “It’s a small building.”
City officials realized the provision was being used as a “loophole,” giving developers license for hyper-dense projects that would not otherwise be approved, according to City Councilman Kevin O’Grady in a previous interview.
The CDMU projects often involved large parking lots and gratuitous clear-cutting, O’Grady said, and last October the provision was patched to require more open space, and incentivize the inclusion of workforce housing.
Like other projects to earn approvals while the rule was still on the books, the Cottages won’t have to adapt its site plan to gel with the new language.
“There have been no changes to the original plans and this project will be completed as originally approved,” Wilmington senior planner Brian Chambers wrote in an email.
According to planning commission documents, 15,193 square feet of the Cottages’ first phase was impervious surface area at the time of the rezoning. The site plans called for 84,087 square feet of impervious surface, “or roughly 54.3% of the site.”
Once plans for the first phase were secured, the team pushed forward on rezoning eight parcels across the street. In June 2020, Wolf told the planning commission about the Cottage’s next phase: nine buildings capable of housing around 250 students and a 2,700 square foot amenity center. (Earlier that year, a .68 acre parcel was also rezoned to be added into the Cottages site).
Staff reports showed traffic volumes on S. College Road and Racine Drive were far above their respective capacities. At the intersection of College Acres and Racine, yellow poles prevent drivers from making left turns.
Wolf and the commission went back and forth on parking. The minimum requirement was 207 spaces. More spaces could be constructed, up to 258, but any additional parking after the 207th space must be done with porous materials, the commission decided. They approved the request and the city council followed with a favorable ruling.
Some local residents fear that parking could overflow onto neighborhood lots if tenants invite friends to park at the complex.
“What do they think is going to happen on a weekend night when 25% of them have friends?” said Neal Schulman, who lives in the vicinity of UNCW. “Where will they park except on other people’s property?”
Since the Cottages will be immediately next to campus, the developers expect a large portion of their market will be students without vehicles.
UNCW, in turn, is working to keep students on campus. First-year students who wanted to cancel their housing contracts — so they could live at home and take classes remotely — made an agreement that they would fulfill the on-campus residency requirement during their sophomore year.
More than 14,500 undergraduate students are enrolled at UNCW. According to Nikki Baer, the property manager, the first phase of the Cottages at College Acres will house tenants this fall. She said three-bedroom units are leasing at a monthly rate of $815 per bedroom, while four-bedroom units go for $780 per bedroom.
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org