Plans for the transformation of a downtown Wilmington block are proceeding, New Hanover County officials said in a recent update.
The next phase for Project Grace, which is the name of a public-private partnership to redevelop the county- owned block bordered by Grace, Third, Chestnut and Second streets, is schematic design and design development, according to a county update in August.
The goal of Project Grace is to create a modern, mixed-use development with public and private facilities that could include commercial uses and residential space. Existing public facilities on the site include the main branch of the New Hanover County Public Library, a parking deck and other buildings.
After the county entered a memorandum of understanding with Wilmington-based Zimmer Development Co. earlier this year, one of the first steps was a discovery phase allowing LS3P Architecture to become familiar with the needs of the library and Cape Fear Museum, which would move from Market Street to the new facility, according to the update.
LS3P officials met with library and museum staff members “to understand their goals and ideas for a new facility to ensure they remained informed and had the opportunity to share their thoughts on a new facility,” the county update stated.
Their findings included the need for a shared entrance and lobby with an auditorium; dedicated spaces in the library for adults, children, teens, local history and multi-purpose uses; dedicated spaces in the museum for science and history exhibits, changing and traveling exhibits, a planetarium and immersive experiences and education rooms for hands-on learning; outdoor space, including an urban plaza with dedicated dropoff school staging, a safe outdoor reading terrace dedicated to children; and an outdoor rooftop area that will feature exhibits and interactive learning opportunities.
The county plans to maintain the current museum property on Market Street as a research and collections facility, effectively doubling the space allocation for the museum, the update stated.
“The proposed location for the new facility is on the north side of the block, which will allow library services to remain operational in the current building while the new facility is constructed,” the update said. “This location was also chosen because school buses can stack and stage along Second and Grace streets in a safer manner, the grade change on this portion of the site better accommodates a loading dock needed for the building, and the natural lighting is easier to control on the northside for museum exhibits that are sensitive to natural light.”
According to the update, the design determined that it won’t be feasible to keep one of the existing buildings in the block, the Borst Building, “while also creating a purpose- built library and museum.”
Historic preservationists have taken issue with that determination.
“The demolition of the Borst Building, as detailed in the recently- released Project Grace Discovery Phase Summary, has disappointed the Historic Wilmington Foundation (HWF) and our community of local preservationists,” HWF officials stated in a release issued the same day as the county’s update, Aug. 4. “The site analysis created by New Hanover County (NHC) for Project Grace creates a dangerous precedent of local government eroding the character of our region’s National Register Historic Districts.”
According to HWF, the Borst Building is classified as a contributing resource in the Wilmington National Register Historic District. It was built in 1926 as Wilmington’s first Chrysler dealership.
“Its slated demolition will negatively impact the historical and architectural significance of the Wilmington National Register Historic District, which is essential to maintaining buildings’ eligibility for state and federal historic preservation tax credits,” HWF officials said.
According to the foundation, demolition of contributing resources, such as the Borst Building, “puts Wilmington at risk for the erosion of its National Register Historic District boundaries, which may exclude properties from historic preservation tax credits in the future. Private investment encouraged by historic preservation tax credits is a proven tool for the economic revitalization of downtown Wilmington, as evidenced by Lighthouse Film’s Richter Building, Seabird Restaurant in the Solomon Building, and Monteith Construction’s offices in the Knights of Pythias Building.”
Foundation officials added, “With the block’s southern parcel expected to hold private development, Zimmer Development Company has an opportunity to preserve the historic Belk-Beery Building as a project that reimagines the former department store. In 1981, New Hanover County [reimagined] the building as the new Main Library, establishing a legacy of adaptive reuse for the building.
“The Historic Wilmington Foundation calls upon Zimmer Development Company to dedicate itself to the adaptive reuse of the Belk- Beery.”
A grassroots movement, Save Our Main Library, has also been underway to encourage the reuse of the Belk-Beery building rather than demolition, with the position that the county could make better use of space in the main branch and save money in the long run.
“We’re asking to save the main library to make it the best library it can be,” said Diana Hill of Save Our Main Library.
The latest phase of the Project Grace process is expected to wrap up in early 2022, according to the county update.
As part of the Project Grace memorandum that county officials approved in March, the developer will manage the construction of the public and private facilities on the site and, at the end of construction on the library and museum part, the county would have a 20-year lease on the building that includes the construction, furniture and fixtures.
“At the end of the 20-year term, New Hanover County would own the library and museum components at no additional cost,” the county’s Project Grace information pages state.
According to the county’s timeline, a development agreement process that includes a review by the Local Government Commission and a public hearing could be complete by spring 2022, if approved by the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. If the approval is granted, permitting and construction could begin by the summer of next year.
Hill’s group plans to keep pushing for changes and encouraging the reuse of the current library building within the development.
She said, “My understanding is they haven’t signed a contract yet and they also have to go through the LGC … We’re hoping that they will listen to us.”