Project Grace

New Hanover County is exploring a potential redevelopment opportunity of a three-acre county-owned block in downtown Wilmington. The block is bordered by Grace, Third, Chestnut, and Second streets and currently includes the county’s Main Public Library, a parking deck, and several underutilized surface parking lots.

On March 15, 2021, Commissioners approved a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Zimmer Development to redefine and restart the project that would create a civic and arts district in downtown Wilmington, inclusive of the Public Library and Cape Fear Museum, office space, and private development with residential & mixed use.

View information about the Commissioners’ direction here, and view the executed MOU here.


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New Hanover County is in the unique position of owning an entire city-block in downtown Wilmington. This block currently includes a New Hanover County Library and a 640-space parking garage, but a large portion of the block is underutilized.

The Board of Commissioners approved a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Zimmer Development on March 15, 2021, that creates the framework for the project that will now be built upon and refined over the next year. Commissioners also made several updates to the MOU including: an additional 8,000 square feet of shared space for the Public Library and Cape Fear Museum (without any change to costs outlined in the MOU); an additional 60day discovery period for the developer to meet with the staff and boards from the Library and Museum for engagement and feedback; and removal of any reference to the city related to the office component on the block.

Based on the MOU, the project would include a new, modern public library and Cape Fear Museum, as well as private development on the block with residential and mixed use – creating a civic and arts district in downtown Wilmington.

The developer would manage the construction of both the public and private facilities on the site and, at the end of construction on the library and museum components, the county would have a twenty-year lease on the building that is inclusive of the construction, furniture and fixtures. At the end of the twenty-year term, New Hanover County would own the library and museum components at no additional cost. The parcel for private development would include residential and mixed use that would enhance the tax value.

View the executed MOU here.

What is the goal of the project?

The primary goal of the project is to have a purpose-built, modern facility in downtown Wilmington that brings the Public Library and Cape Fear Museum together and meets the specific and unique needs of both, creating new synergy in services and enhancing the visitor’s experience

 

What is the purpose of the MOU?

The MOU provides a framework that the developer and county can agree to, and helps to redefine and restart the conversation for Project Grace. The MOU is a starting-off point and will lead into the community engagement, design process, and final plans for the site.

 

How is the public-private partnership structured under the MOU?

Under the MOU, the developer would manage the construction of both the public and private facilities on the site and, at the end of construction on the library and museum components, the county would have a twenty-year lease on the buildings that is inclusive of the construction, furniture and fixtures. At the end of the twenty-year term, New Hanover County would own the library and museum components at no additional cost. The parcel for private development would include an office component as well as residential and mixed use that would enhance the tax value. This proposal is contingent upon Local Government Commission approval.

 

What would happen to the Cape Fear Museum?

New Hanover County values our region’s rich and diverse history, and the museum’s work in preserving that history and educating the community. Under the proposed MOU, a new, 35,000 square foot museum (with an additional 8,000 sq. ft. of shared space with the library) would be constructed on the downtown block, built with the ability to grow, bring in new exhibits, and showcase science and history in new and innovative ways. The county plans to maintain the current museum property on Market Street as a research and collections facility, effectively doubling the overall space allocation for the museum.

 

What would happen to the downtown library?

The county’s main library has been, and will continue to be a staple in downtown Wilmington. Under the proposed MOU, a new 38,000 square foot library (with an additional 8,000 sq. ft. of shared space with the museum) would be constructed on the block that would be state-of-the art, and designed specifically for library patrons.

The current building has significant limitations, including the inability to expand services because of structural deficits and it is an aging structure that will need significant capital investments in the near future to ensure modern functionality and accommodate the changing needs of the community.

For reference, the main library on the block is currently 101,000 square feet, but only about 32,400 square feet is being utilized (the majority of the space, including the basement and other open spaces and open corridors are underutilized).

 

Would greenspace be incorporated in the project?

Community space is a priority for the project, and Zimmer’s development team is currently examining the possibility of including community elements such as an outdoor community gathering area and park, a community terrace, and an overlook roof terrace, as noted in the MOU.

 

Would the proposed residential units be affordable?

Under the MOU, the developer has committed to no less than 5% of the multifamily units being workforce housing for a period of no less than 10 years.

 

How would this project incorporate historic elements and ensure it is in keeping with downtown?

The development team has engaged LS3P Architecture, a design firm with experience in historic preservation and incorporating historic elements into projects. This will help ensure the look and feel of the site is in keeping with the surrounding area.

 

Is parking on the block being factored into the project?

The parking deck on the site will remain and the county, as the current owner of the 620-space parking deck, will continue to manage the deck unless otherwise agreed to.

 

What are the next steps?

The Board of Commissioners approved the MOU with Zimmer Development on Monday, March 15 and are now in the 60-day discovery period for the developer to meet with the staff and boards from the Library and Museum for engagement and feedback. After the 60-day discovery period, the team will begin working on schematic plans, design and construction documents for the site. Approving and finalizing these plans is expected to take almost a year to complete (likely by early 2022), and would lead to a development agreement that would outline the project’s final structure, including the financial framework. The agreement, likely finalized by the spring of 2022, would require another public hearing and also be subject to review by the Local Government Commission.  

 

What is a Public Private Partnership?

Through a public private partnership, the county can invest in the library and museum and also guarantee private investment, as well as workforce housing, on the site.

According to the Urban Land Institute, “Public-private partnerships are considered “creative alliances” formed between a government entity and private developers to create a common purpose.” This kind of partnership builds collaborative relationships, allows sharing of resources, minimizes the county’s risk, creates greater efficiencies, and furthers the community’s economic development potential. Below are professional associations focused on public-private partnerships:

In response to New Hanover County’s Request for Proposals (RFP) in 2018, a full proposal was received from Zimmer Development Company and team. At the April 14, 2019 Board of Commissioners meeting, Commissioners discussed the project and unanimously approved a motion to explore alternative options for the county-owned block in downtown Wilmington and to also begin discussions with the Zimmer Development team about the details of their current development proposal. In 2021, the developer proposed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to redefine and restart the project, and the Board of Commissioners approved the MOU on March 15, 2021.

Below is a detailed timeline for the project:

Project Timeline Date
Solicitation/Phase I: Request for Qualifications (RFQ) released April 30, 2018
Statements of qualifications from project teams due June 15, 2018
Project team evaluations July 2018
Recommendation to Board of Commissioners on how to proceed to a Request for Proposals (RFP) September 17, 2018
Top qualified teams invited to submit full proposals October 2018
Full proposals due December 2018
Evaluation of proposals, including public input and an independent financial analysis January-March 2019
Recommendation to Board of Commissioners & decision on next steps Spring 2019
Development team reviews site alternatives 2019-present
Board of Commissioners hold public hearing & approve MOU March 15, 2021
Review period, schematic design, design development & construction documents Tentative Completion: Early 2022
Development Agreement Finalized (to include final structure, financial outline, review by the Local Government Commission & public hearing) Tentative: Spring 2022
If approved to move forward, permitting & construction would begin Tentative: Summer 2022

 

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