Redevelopment of County Property Has Economic Development Potential

Imagine a city block in a growing and vibrant downtown that has the potential to be redeveloped into a more productive, useful space. That is the vision for the county-owned block in downtown Wilmington, bordered by Grace, Third, Chestnut and Second Streets. It is surrounded by businesses and nearby hotels, only two blocks from the Riverwalk, and within walking distance to every downtown restaurant.

Right now, the county’s main library branch, the new Story Park, an EMS facility, a 650-space parking deck, and three surface parking lots comprise this three-acre block. But it could be utilized in a much more efficient way. The parking lots are underused and there is empty space of no value in the block’s current design.

The potential of this property cannot be overstated. With a visionary and strategic approach to redevelopment, the block has the opportunity to help change the landscape of downtown Wilmington – attracting new businesses, adding jobs, and bringing more residents to the area. Improvements to the block, while retaining its important public uses, could maximize the taxpayer’s asset of owning this property and is an opportunity to provide added value to the citizens of New Hanover County.

As part of New Hanover County’s commitment to economic development, in January, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a contract with Wilmington Downtown, Inc. (WDI) to work with a consultant on creating a market study, site analysis, and alternatives for redeveloping this entire block that New Hanover County owns.

The consultant, Benchmark Planning, has been successful with similar redevelopment studies for public-owned property. WDI is one of the county’s economic development partners and has helped to grow and develop downtown Wilmington. They are well positioned to help lead this project.

In the coming months, Benchmark Planning will conduct a Market Demand Analysis of the block to determine sustainable development opportunities and a Site Analysis to examine the land-use codes and architectural issues of the entire block. The analysis will also include a review of the main library, which was originally built as a Belk Department Store in 1951 and reconfigured into the library in 1981.

Benchmark’s research will show concrete data on what the market can support on this block, what will actually fit on the site, and several possibilities on how it could be arranged. A presentation with their preliminary findings, along with an associated financial analysis, is planned for the Commissioners in June. At that point, the Commissioners will determine if there is a benefit to pursuing redevelopment; and if so, the preferred development concept.

If the county moves forward with any type of redevelopment, the library services, Story Park, EMS services, and the 650-space structured parking deck that are currently on the block will remain, but the configuration has the potential to change.

The Library’s Advisory Board and administration are supportive of redevelopment that helps to improve the library’s services downtown with new designs and technologies. Based on current library trends, a smaller, more modern library has the potential to serve the community better than the current 101,000 square-foot library building.

Case studies throughout the country show the benefits of public-private partnerships in development. Nearby Wake County, with the help of Benchmark Planning, conducted a site and fiscal impact analysis on a piece of publicly-owned property. From the results, Wake County chose a development concept with a 90-unit residential building wrapping a publicly-owned parking structure. It is a successful example of the benefit of creative collaboration between the public and private sectors.

A public-private redevelopment of this kind is aligned with New Hanover County’s strategic goal to create and support a vibrant and culturally diverse community that encourages private investment. By putting public property back into the hands of the private sector, New Hanover County can expand the tax base, strengthen existing county facilities, and create opportunities for high-value offices.

This is an opportunity to leverage a publicly-owned piece of property to attract growth and advance the county’s economic development potential. It would directly further New Hanover County’s commitment to be a safe, healthy, and secure community.

Illustration Courtesy of City of Wilmington staff

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