Project Grace And The Possibility Of Redevelopment

In January, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners entered into a contract with Wilmington Downtown, Inc. and Benchmark Planning to conduct a study on a county-owned downtown block. The study has been completed and the results have been shared at public meetings with the New Hanover County Commissioners, as well as Wilmington City Council.

The purpose of this study was to realize the untapped potential of this underutilized downtown property, understand the constraints of the site, and develop a recommendation that maximizes the block’s value and opportunities for New Hanover County citizens – both in terms of services and taxable property.

The study presented several viable and appealing options that transform the downtown block into a hub for learning, activity and growth. The redevelopment option that has generated the majority of public comments and questions has been option four, which includes co-locating the downtown library and the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science.

This option would give residents the opportunity to visit a modern library then step next door to a traveling exhibit in a new and relocated museum. This redevelopment option could bring apartments, shops, offices, a hotel and ample parking to this block – providing opportunities for New Hanover County citizens and visitors to experience added amenities in our growing downtown. These opportunities would be possible through a public-private partnership between New Hanover County and a private developer to collaborate and achieve a common purpose.

It’s important to understand what this redevelopment option would mean for the downtown area and the county’s services, so I have outlined some of those key points below.

Library Services

The county’s main library downtown was originally designed as a Belk Department Store and has significant limitations, including the inability to expand services because of structural deficits. It is an aging structure that will need significant capital investments in the near future to ensure modern functionality and accommodate the growing needs of the community.

If this block is redeveloped, the library size would increase by approximately 25 percent. The current library size is 101,000 square feet, but only 67,400 is usable space. Of that, 35,000 is used for basement storage and office space for staff, both of which would be moved to another location. With these estimates, about 32,400 square feet is needed for the downtown library’s current services; but the county would recommend a library size of 40-45,000 square feet to accommodate future growth if it is redeveloped.

The downtown library’s North Carolina Room, Law Library, community meeting rooms and children’s room would be maintained at the redeveloped downtown library. And if a modern library is built, downtown office space will be temporarily leased to ensure library services continue during construction.

Cape Fear Museum Services

Cape Fear Museum’s building was originally designed as an armory. It has been repurposed into a museum, but lacks the ability to accommodate many traveling exhibits due to ceiling heights and room sizes. It is also an aging structure and will need capital investments to ensure functionality. Its current size is 38,420 square feet and if it is moved and redeveloped, the proposed size would be 40,000 square feet.

Cape Fear Museum recently completed a strategic plan that outlines the goals of engaging the community, developing new and creative ways to experience exhibits, creating an improved entry experience, and reallocating space. The Cape Fear Museum Associates and Advisory Board are supportive of the redevelopment of the museum as it aligns with their strategic goals.

If it is determined that Cape Fear Museum would be relocated, a study for the desired use of the current building would be fast-tracked. This was not part of the current Project Grace study, but the county would seek direct engagement from the community to reach a decision on future uses of this site.

Moving Forward Together

Cape Fear Museum and the Public Library innovatively collaborate on programs to enhance learning experiences throughout the year. For instance, library and museum staff conduct preschool learning activities at both facilities and many programs, such as Tarheels Go Walking, travel to both locations in order to complete their experience.

Building a library and museum side by side creates more synergy among these two important educational services, eliminates travel between the two for programming, and provides the opportunity to share meeting rooms, classrooms and more.

The county envisions green space to be an important element of this proposal. While redevelopment may change the library’s Story Park as it is today, many of the investments within the Story Park are mobile and could be repurposed to creatively accomplish green space and components of Story Park in their design. If the museum were relocated downtown, the community would be engaged in any decision regarding the Cape Fear Museum Park.

It’s also important to note that the library and old Register of Deeds building, located on the county-owned downtown block, are not on the National Register of Historical Places and are not located in the local historic district. However, the county would work closely with the City of Wilmington if we move forward to ensure that the appropriate permissions are received to redevelop this block.

Informational Meetings

New Hanover County will hold two information meetings to provide an outline of the study so that our community understands what this project means and the great possibilities it presents. The first meeting will be from 6 to 7 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 18 at the downtown library. The second will take place on from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 19 at Cape Fear Museum. While these will not be a forum for public comment, written comments will be collected and shared with the county commissioners.

New Hanover County is committed to remain at the forefront of innovative services and provide quality resources to our citizens. I believe that redeveloping this downtown property will do just that. More information about this project can be found here on the county’s website.

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