When Cassie Mitlitsky first visited the site of her future veterinary clinic, weeds obscured the single-story, 1970s-era brick home on Carolina Beach Road. The home’s windows were boarded up, and inside the house was filled with water-damaged carpet, trash left by squatters and asbestos.
Still, she saw the property’s potential as a residential-to-commercial flip.
“Not everyone wants to take on a project like this, but it saves us money,” she said, “and I love keeping the old bones of a building that’s been in Wilmington for years.”
Mitlitsky began searching for a spot for her first clinic about a year ago. Although most of the available commercial buildings were located along Market Street, Mitlitsky wanted to find a property in the Carolina Beach Road corridor – it’s where most of her clients live, she said.
Commercial properties in the area were out of Mitlitsky’s price range, so she looked for a home she could purchase, rezone and flip. That’s when she found the house at 4629 Carolina Beach Road.
After securing a commercial rezoning earlier this year, a contractor hired by Mitlitsky gutted the home and removed its asbestos. It now needs a full-on makeover with new electrical, plumbing, drywall and oxygen lines. She hopes to wrap construction on Sandy Paws Animal Hospital by the end of the year.
“It’s really exciting,” Mitlitsky said, “something that I dreamed about for a really long time.”
That redevelopment is representative, albeit on a small scale, of broader trends occurring along parts of the Carolina Beach Road corridor. Although most of the projects are much larger than Mitlitsky’s, the area has seen a recent uptick in rezonings for commercial and multifamily developments.
Carolina Beach Road started as a rural road linking the city of Wilmington with Pleasure Island, said New Hanover County Planning Director Rebekah Roth.
Link to residents
It’s a corridor that spans municipalities, beginning at Burnett Boulevard in the city of Wilmington, crossing into New Hanover County, merging with South College Road and stretching south toward Carolina Beach.
When Dean Scarafoni, founder and president of Live Oak Development Co., began his career in Wilmington in the 1990s, the corridor’s development was concentrated at the intersection of Carolina Beach and College roads.
“Everything in that part of town was in and around Monkey Junction,” Scarafoni said.
But as Riverlights brought in hundreds of homes, Echo Farms saw redevelopment and The Pointe at Barclay evolved, it became clear there was a need for a new service node.
“Retail follows rooftops, so no one’s going to open a grocery store unless there’s an existing population base,” Scarafoni said. “As the rooftops increased along River Road and along Carolina Beach Road, then it became viable for there to be retail development beyond Monkey Junction.”
About five years ago, Scarafoni started working on the Crossroads at Independence, a retail center anchored by one of North Carolina’s largest Harris Teeters. The grocery store opened its doors last October. Today, all of Scarafoni’s commercial spaces are leased, and he’s working to finalize a tenant for the center’s last available outparcel.
Developers are taking advantage of the area’s proximity to grocery stores, restaurants and other services.
Last bits of land
Plans for a 257-unit apartment complex and another 225-unit complex are proposed near the intersection of Carolina Beach Road and Independence Boulevard. Rezonings, which are required for both projects, are set to go before the Wilmington City Council in the coming weeks.
“You’re seeing more residential built around that node because of the services that are available,” said Brian Chambers, assistant director of Wilmington’s Planning and Development Department. “This is also the area of town where we’ve got the last bit of available large tracts of vacant land.”
In recent months, Chambers has noticed an uptick in large multifamily developments being proposed for the Carolina Beach Road corridor – an area that in the past saw primarily commercial projects and single-family homes. The number of homes with frontage onto the corridor has dwindled as other, denser development has taken hold.
“Usually, folks don’t want to live in a single-family home on a four-lane divided highway,” Chambers said. “When the opportunity presents itself, people are going to accumulate a number of residential single-family home parcels … and then try to redevelop on a larger scale.”
The corridor’s New Hanover County stretch is seeing an uptick in high-profile rezoning requests, Roth said. Since the start of the year, the planning department has received seven rezoning applications along Carolina Beach Road.
“We definitely haven’t seen this many rezoning requests in this area for a while,” Roth said.
Many of those requests, including Mitlitsky’s, were commercial rezonings for new businesses, including several gas stations, but Roth has also seen new demand for high-density multifamily development along with projects proposing a mix of uses with commercial and multifamily.
The trends she’s seeing along Carolina Beach Road remind Roth of the commercial and multifamily demand the county previously saw in Ogden and Porters Neck.
Close to services
“What happened on Market Street a few years ago is now coming to that Carolina Beach Road corridor,” she said.
As a developer specializing in affordable housing projects, Stephanie Norris, with Norco Management Holding Inc., sees that demand firsthand across New Hanover County.
She sees the Carolina Beach Road corridor as a prime location for affordable multifamily developments. They’ve already developed two projects near the intersection of Carolina Beach and South College roads, and a third is in the works.
Earlier this year, Norris secured a rezoning and annexation to bring a complex with 56 senior apartments to a 1.5-acre lot on Carolina Beach Road. The complex will cater to seniors making 60% or less of the area median income. The intersection’s existing stores – Walmart, Lowes Foods, Dollar Tree, among others – paired with its array of restaurants and other services are a good fit for the residents Norris hopes to serve.
“Carolina Beach Road and parts of South College Road just seem to make sense for us,” she said.“Since a lot of our residents are on fixed incomes, we wanted things to be close by. If they do have to drive … they at least are not going across town or they’re not having to spend a lot of time and money in or on a vehicle.”
Norris recently secured tax credit funding for the project, which is called Sterling Reserve. She aims to start construction with completion in June 2025.
With hundreds of new apartments slated for the corridor, some wonder whether the area’s infrastructure can handle the growth.
“More rooftops and projects are very good for business, very good for the tax base, but at some point, we’ve got to look at the traffic,” Scarafoni said. “I think that’s really the next question: What is the proper amount of development? And how can we keep the traffic to where it’s not a detriment and it doesn’t become a negative?”
That’s a side effect of development planning leaders from the city of Wilmington and New Hanover County are monitoring as they consider each new proposal.
“It’s a balancing act,” Chambers said. “You’re trying to get people close to services and along transit routes. That’s where this growth needs to occur, but also, you’ve got a road network that needs to be maintained to keep up with it.”
There are plans from the city of Wilmington to widen the stretch of Independence Boulevard between Carolina Beach and River roads and to improve the intersection where the two roads meet, Chambers said.
Rezonings on the rise?
As a connector between the city of Wilmington and Pleasure Island, Roth said high traffic along Carolina Beach Road is all but inevitable.
“If you’ve got a major attractor on one end and a major attractor on the other end, you’re going to have traffic growth,” she said, “regardless of what happens in terms of development between them.”
Roth expects to see rezonings continue as development in the area shifts away from single-family homes.
“If a piece of property is available, then I would expect it would trigger rezoning,” she said. “I just don’t think that there are many, if any, people who would want to develop an R-15 project on a small lot immediately adjacent to Carolina Beach Road.”