City offers more density and mixed-use opportunities in rare zoning code rewrite

Downtown Wilmington Covid
The new Wilmington land code will be dense friendly, offering incentives to developers to create workforce housing. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON — The City of Wilmington is preparing to remodel its land development code. The campaign is intended as a modernization of the regulatory guidelines that shape development in the city. 

It has been over 40 years since a similar overhaul occurred, according to city staff. The new changes are designed in part to grapple with an ever-expanding population and dwindled workforce housing supply.

One undertone of the rewrite, which will require a city council vote before it can be adopted, is blending residential and commercial uses in certain territories.


Feedback from more than 4,000 residents made it clear that, in a perfect world, much of the population would prefer a walkable district, city staff said. The hope is to promote mixed-use centers, where residents can walk from their multi-family housing units to nearby grocery stores, retail establishments and more. 

An under-review proposal from a developer to place a multi-family residential complex behind Hanover Center — the shopping plaza across from Independence Mall — represents the type of growth city leaders are hoping to see, planning director Glenn Harbeck said. The location is an easy walk from a host of retail options and nearby Empie Park, cutting down the need for cars in some circumstances. The city lists tree preservation and replacement a priority in the list of goals.

Read More: Does Wilmington know how to care for baby trees?

But no two realms within the city’s jurisdiction are the same. While the urban core and some parts of midtown are appropriate targets for walkability, other spots — like parts of the College Road and Oleander Drive corridors — have succumbed to vehicle-dependent sprawl. The nature of a business’ surroundings will influence updated frontage standards.

“We want to put multifamily development close to where it’s needed, not just out on the highway,” Harbeck said. “The worst thing we can do is put up the apartment complex out on the highway, totally dependent on cars.”

Assistant planning director Ron Satterfield said all property owners will retain the same rights to their land as they had prior to the switchover to the new districts. Council is expected to vote on the new code this year. According to Satterfield, full implementation will not come soon, giving the public time to understand changes and builders time to learn how to adjust site plans if necessary. 

[See the map of the current and proposed zoning districts in Wilmington]

[More information on the City’s plan can be found here]

Duplexes will be allowed in the R-7 districts, a moderate density residential district, which previously prohibited them. Minimum parking standards will be eliminated within the 1945 corporate limits — giving businesses allowance to operate without a parking lot if they wish.  

Housing affordability is center stage, especially after the topic took the spotlight in a meeting between both city and county leadership. After years of research and diagnosis on the region’s housing situation, the Workforce Housing Advisory Committee recently began to deliver its findings. 

READ MORE: Area leaders inch closer to tackling affordable housing, favored recommendation still undetermined

On the hunt for cost-friendly homes and rentals, the city is making a bid to convince developers to offer affordable units. Depending on the zoning district, the maximum density for multifamily developments will be either 10 or 17 units per acre. But if the developer makes a pledge to dedicate at least 10% of the units for workforce housing, for at least 15 years, the maximum allowed density increases to 36 units per acre. 

Exchanging low-cost housing for density is a move the city first implemented last year: In October 2020, council voted to close an 18-year loophole by allowing unlimited density in the commercial mixed use district if at least 10% workforce housing is included. It was the city’s first official attempt to incentivize lower-cost rentals. 

Another proposal involves connecting commercial parking lots in the future, so drivers don’t have to re-emerge onto major roadways in order to traverse short distances in business districts, according to senior planner Christine Hughes. 

Hughes said furnishing the regional demand for housing within the city, specifically, is key. If housing options abound in Wilmington, she said, there would not be as great of a need for workers to live elsewhere and commute.

“If we don’t accommodate it in the city, then people are going to go to Pender County, Brunswick County,” she said. “And perhaps the environmental impacts aren’t happening within our city limits, but they’re still happening to us, in our region.”


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