It’s intriguing to consider the importance that a 1.2 acre parcel of land has played in the vibrancy of downtown Wilmington over the past 50 years…and the importance it could play in the next 50.
The mid-1960s were a dire time for downtown Wilmington. The city had suffered a devastating blow when the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad moved to Jacksonville, Florida. Redevelopment in our urban core floundered while the city expanded into the suburbs. After more than two hundred years of being the heart of our city, downtown Wilmington was in danger from urban blight and decreasing interest from area residents.
One of the unlikely saviors was the Water Street Deck, which brought much needed parking to support downtown businesses. The investment worked and downtown rebounded. Fifty years later we have a vibrant downtown that remains an increasing draw for area residents and tourists. In 2014, 21 businesses started in downtown with a financial investment of $42.3 million. Projects under construction or announced in the past year total $264.2 million.
Linked once again to this growing vibrancy is the parcel of land where the Water Street Deck resides. City Council has identified continued public parking at the site a necessity. But a deck alone would not be the highest and best use of the land. The City contracted with professionals at UNC-Chapel Hill to analyze the best use of the property to help ensure the city receives a return on investment of city taxpayer money, as well as a public benefit. Those professionals, the consulting group DFI, held numerous meetings to receive public input.
Their recommendation was to enter into a partnership with private investors to construct a mixed-use development with public parking (approximately 300 spaces), additional public open space, 18,000-22,000 square feet of retail space, a wrapped parking deck and residential offerings. Such a deal would be positive financially for the City through new tax revenues from investment on the site, increased parking revenues, and additional private investment in the surrounding blocks that could increase tax revenues.
Public-private partnerships are used extensively around the country as a way to achieve redevelopment and private investment that is compatible with the needs and wants of a community, and save taxpayer dollars by leveraging private investment. The decision to redevelop this parcel of land has not been entered into lightly and goes back more than fifteen years, when Council sold the property to a private developer to construct a mixed-use development. That project did not come to fruition, and Council repurchased the land to ensure the City could guide redevelopment of the strategically located parcel, the redevelopment of which was also called for in the Vision 2020 Plan.
Some people have called for the deck property to be converted into a park. The DFI study did not find that idea to be the best use of the property, and, in addition, in 2013 City Council acquired a 6.6-acre parcel on the northern end of the downtown waterfront for a large downtown open space. The idea, however, was not completely discounted in the redevelopment plans, which include a small amount of open space and ways to better utilize Bijou Park and Chestnut Street for open space, walkability and connectivity to Front Street.
Others have expressed concerns that the proposed redevelopment designs by East-West Partners of Chapel Hill (that Council has chosen to negotiate a deal with) and Cape Fear Development Partners of Wilmington (which had the second place design selection) are too large and out of character. While preserving the aesthetics of our downtown is a valid concern, there are numerous other large-scale buildings in the vicinity that have set a precedent. In addition, the top two proposals took care in their street-level design to preserve the character of downtown.
Leaving the deck as-is is not an option due to its age. The City has already had to spend $450,000 as a stop-gap measure due to the deck’s structural issues. It’s important to note that DFI estimates that over a 30-year period, it would cost the city about $15 million to replace the deck with no private development partnership, but just under $5 million over the same 30-year period if the city does partner with a private developer, factoring in the city’s recouped costs. The project is expected to generate more than $600,000 in new annual property tax and sales tax revenue countywide when completed.
I am pleased that the City repurchased the property and that Council is seeking a development that will be beneficial to the tax base, that increases quality of life in central downtown through additional public use space, and that will bring additional residents to support businesses. Adding to the vibrancy of our City’s core is another economic development win.