The South Atlantic coastal city sits near the mouth of the state’s most important river, anchoring one of its fastest-growing regions.
Its flourishing downtown is a blend of old and new, with thousands of people living in its long-established historic district and modern apartment buildings. An iconic bridge spans the river that’s a gateway to the seaport near downtown. The riverfront is a popular destination for restaurant patrons, shoppers or those simply taking in the view of the mostly undeveloped island across the river from downtown.
Welcome to Savannah, Georgia, a city remarkably similar to Wilmington, including its recent efforts to expand its urban footprint across the river. As Wilmington-area leaders consider new commercial projects on the west bank of the Cape Fear River, Savannah’s forging ahead with development on Hutchinson Island, a stretch of low-lying land across the Savannah River from the city’s historic downtown.
Much like the west bank of the Cape Fear, Hutchinson Island historically served as a shipping and industrial area for Savannah, a stark contrast to the stately homes across the river. Like Wilmington’s Eagles Island, those industries died off, and the island was left mostly desolate.
Today, however, Hutchinson Island is slowly being transformed, now home to a 15-story Westin hotel, the Savannah Convention Center and a championship golf course. Current plans include several large mixed-use commercial developments, and the Georgia Ports Authority is building a 200-acre container facility.
In Wilmington, two projects are proposed across from downtown – the six-story Wilmington Hotel and Spa on Eagles Island, just south of the battleship; and Battleship Point, a large mixed-use project on Point Peter, a small peninsula a bit north of the ship.
Ironically, although both projects would dramatically change the across-the-river view from downtown Wilmington, neither is in the city limits – both are in unincorporated sections of New Hanover County.
So when it comes to a vision for the western side of the river, Wilmington – arguably one of the biggest stakeholders – has no seat at the table. Even New Hanover County’s power to shape the future of the area is limited since most of Eagles Island is in Brunswick County. New Hanover also potentially stands to lose zoning control of Point Peter. The developers of Battleship Point have asked the town of Leland to annex its property, a strategy developers employed after hesitation by New Hanover leaders to approve new zoning.
The marshy and flood-prone west side of the river has been home to the Battleship North Carolina since 1961. The Army Corps of Engineers and a handful of businesses occupy a relatively small strip near the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, but, other than the battleship area, the land directly across from downtown is undeveloped.
A variety of groups own the dozen or so parcels across from downtown, including the Battleship Commission, the state of North Carolina, Duke Energy, the New Hanover Soil & Water Conservation, the towns of Leland and Belville and a handful of private concerns.
As downtown Wilmington and its waterfront grew in recent decades, the west side of the river garnered little attention. A few commercial projects were proposed, but none gained traction. Even though Point Peter and the prime locations near the battleship are in New Hanover, Commissioner Rob Zapple said the county paid little attention to the area during work on the 2016 comprehensive plan.
“It’s not a whole lot of land, but there’s so much visual impact there,” Zapple said. “It was kind of overlooked. Nobody really discussed it at all.”
With only a few projects proposed over the years, the land stayed mostly off the county’s radar. That should have changed during the more recent work on a unified development ordinance, Zapple said.
“That whole revision process, that’s really where we should have picked it up, but it essentially fell through the cracks,” he said.
Although it faces a host of regulatory hurdles, the Wilmington Hotel and Spa project requires no zoning changes. Battleship Point, however, does. The request has gone before the county commissioners, but at the urging of Zapple and Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, it was tabled for further study.
As of Feb. 23, the county had not announced a date for the meeting or who would be participating. Also as of then, a spokesperson for the city of Wilmington said there had been no formal invitation from New Hanover County to discuss the issue. Elsewhere, a spokesperson said Brunswick County had received no applications for projects on Eagles Island and would consider any future proposals on an individual basis.
Zapple said he was not necessarily opposed to development on the west side of the river, but like some other local leaders and groups, he is concerned about the frequent flooding. It’s a problem that has resulted in the battleship having to elevate its parking lot and the Corps of Engineers exploring leaving Eagles Island, where it has had a presence for more than a century.
Kemp Burdette, riverkeeper with Cape Fear River Watch, has been vocally opposed to major development of Eagles Island and Point Peter. It’s the flooding that makes him most skeptical.
“I think most people who are looking at this objectively understand … that both of those pieces of property – Eagles Island and Point Peter – are going to be underwater in 30 years,” Burdette said.
He said new tidal-gauge data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration paints a bleak picture for the area.
“We’re seeing higher numbers on sea level rise on the East Coast than for the national average numbers you hear about,” Burdette said. “So it’s going to be underwater.”
Burdette said he is not opposed to very low-impact development, such as trails, green spaces and historical and cultural facilities that are elevated and primarily outdoors.
Historic and cultural elements of the area are major concerns for groups such as the Historic Wilmington Foundation and the Brunswick and New Hanover branches of the NAACP. Although Wilmington has no jurisdiction across the river, most of the riverbank across from downtown is part of the city’s National Register historic district and subject to review by the Wilmington Historic Preservation Commission.
“The historic district that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places does include portions of the west bank of the Cape Fear River and the northeast branch of the Cape Fear River,” said Travis Gilbert, executive director of the Historic Wilmington Foundation.
The area is part of the historic district because it includes the Battleship North Carolina, but also numerous archaeological remains, both on land and underwater, Gilbert said.
“From a historical perspective, the landscape of the western bank of the Cape Fear River alludes to the natural resources that made the urbanization of the eastern bank of the Cape Fear River possible,” he said.
As with Zapple and Burdette, Gilbert doesn’t believe the area has to remain completely untouched to preserve its historical, cultural and environmental value.
“We have been vocal about prescriptive zoning measures … such as setback and height restrictions,” Gilbert said. “They aren’t necessarily excluding development for the west bank of the Cape Fear River but ensuring that any development is sensitive to the cultural resources like the USS North Carolina that our county is obligated to preserve and to protect.”
He said the future also could play out with continued acquisition of the private parcels on Eagles Island and Point Peter by conservation groups or the addition of conservation easements. Gilbert generally supports the vision put forth by the Eagles Island Central Park Task Force, including a boardwalk similar to Wilmington’s Riverwalk, walking trails, a maritime museum and a canoe/kayak rental center.
The two NAACP chapters have expressed concerns about intense development on Eagles Island and Point Peter, maintaining that it would exacerbate existing flooding and threaten that area’s cultural and historical integrity, particularly as it relates to the Gullah Geechee people, a community that evolved from slaves on rice plantations and in the naval stores industry, both onetime mainstays of the Eagles Island area.
(In 2006, Congress established the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and later declared it a National Heritage area. Both New Hanover and Brunswick counties are within the corridor).
In a letter to the New Hanover County commissioners, local NAACP leaders said Eagles Island and Point Peter are “well documented as having significant historical and cultural heritage value. There is an exceptional opportunity to preserve, protect and celebrate the history, culture and heritage of our people’s connection to the Lower Cape Fear River …”
Developer Gene Merritt was a driving force behind the redevelopment of downtown Wilmington and an advocate for transforming the city’s riverfront area from its historical industrial use to a recreation and entertainment destination. As he and others pushed for the Riverwalk, Merritt said a vision for the west side of the river never was part of the conversation.
“The other side of the river was almost another world,” Merritt said. “It was not part of the city of Wilmington for sure, and still isn’t part of it.”
Merritt supports development on the west side of the river but in a measured way.
“I have always felt that development could occur over there, but I think it should be planned, not just sterile, open zoning, but rather special-use permits,” he said.
Like some other local groups and leaders, Merritt envisions a bridge-to-bridge riverwalk that would mirror the Wilmington side of the Cape Fear. He believes the best use of the area would be boating-related, with wharves and docks along the riverbank.
Merritt goes a step further than the Eagles Island task force, however. Although he doesn’t support intensive development, he believes limited commercial and residential development should not necessarily be ruled out. He foresees maritime and other recreational uses for the immediate riverfront, with the possibility of larger commercial and residential development farther back.
The key, he believes, is ensuring that any development marries well with the land’s natural setting and is sensitive to its unique and fragile environment.
“Hopefully someone, I guess the county, would have the wisdom to go over there and try to put a big glove over the whole thing and have some sort of a control over the development process so that it doesn’t get out of hand or get wacky,” Merritt said.
But the mishmash of owners and jurisdictions presents challenges. For example, although the projects planned are in New Hanover County, all of the land south of the battleship is in Brunswick County. And moves such as Battleship Point’s request to be annexed by Leland could further complicate attempts for a unified vision for Eagles Island and Point Peter.
That was not the case when a vision was being laid out for Hutchinson Island, which was annexed by Savannah in the late 1990s as development of the island was being proposed. Now the city is solidly behind large-scale development of the island, which leaders see as a natural expansion of its downtown, although it is on the other side of the river.
While Savannah has agreed on a vision for Hutchinson Island, governments and other groups here have only just begun taking a serious look at the future of Eagles Island and the other areas across from downtown.
And even though the sight of the battleship from downtown is one of Wilmington’s most recognizable views, the ship’s island home remains a bit of a mystery, even for county leaders. Zapple believes the commissioners need to learn much more about the area before making decisions about its future.
As Cape Fear Riverkeeper, Burdette sees the river and its environs primarily through an environmental lens. But he doesn’t discount the aesthetics of Eagles Island and how it complements the urban east bank.
“It’s a very unique thing,” Burdette said. “If you go on Instagram and search for something like Cape Fear River sunset, you can see 100,000 pictures people have taken from the Riverwalk.”
Burdette believes it’s the best of both worlds.
“You go to Battleship Park and get the best view of the downtown Wilmington skyline – the church steeples and the historic buildings – and egrets are near you feeding in the marsh,” Burdette said. “Then you cross the river back to Wilmington, and you are in a completely different place.”
The question of whether or not to preserve the dichotomy of the two very separate yet intimately connected places represent is what’s being considered. As that conversation begins, who gets to answer that question and the realistic capacity for that answer to shape the west bank’s future is murky, much like the river that runs through the entire debate.