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Officials Still Weighing Library, Museum Redevelopment Option

By Cece Nunn, posted Sep 12, 2017
Some officials consider Scenario No. 4 -- out of four potential redevelopment scenarios of a downtown Wilmington block -- as a viable option. (From Project Grace presentation by New Hanover County)
New Hanover County Commissioner Pat Kusek said Tuesday that Project Grace is a classic example of a situation where "everybody needs to inhale and exhale and take a chill pill and get all the facts before they start printing up T-shirts."

Kusek was referring to the backlash in recent months against Project Grace, which is the potential redevelopment of the county-owned downtown Wilmington block bordered by North Third, Chestnut, North Second and Grace streets, property that includes the main branch of the New Hanover County Public Library.

She said some residents seem to have misconceptions about what impact Project Grace might have on the library and the Cape Fear Museum, which in one potential redevelopment scenario would relocate from Market Street to the library block, possibly sharing a building with a new library.

Commissioners heard a presentation on Project Grace this summer that included four redevelopment scenarios in what would be a public-private partnership, ranging from $76 million to $120 million in projected private construction cost estimates.

Putting the library and museum together in a mixed-use project at the site in that scenario would require tearing the existing library building down, something the Historic Wilmington Foundation "is adamantly opposed to," said George Edwards, the foundation's director. Dubbed Scenario No. 4, the proposal could include a five-story retail/hotel building, a 12-story retail/office/condo building and eight stories of apartments above two stories shared by an updated library and Cape Fear Museum.

Edwards said the existing library building, a former Belk department store that serves as one of only a few examples of mid-century modern design in downtown Wilmington, and the Register of Deeds office, a former auto dealership, have something to add to the community.

"We see a nibbling away of our resources, and that is always troubling to a preservation organization. Everything can't be saved -- we will always acknowledge that -- but we would like to see buildings that seemingly have been adaptively reused continue to be landmarks," Edwards said.

But some county officials are leaning towards the prospect of a new library and museum located together on the site as one they might choose to proceed with, if any at all.

Kusek said she has not made a decision yet on which of the four potential redevelopment scenarios, developed through a study by Benchmark Planning of Charlotte and Wilmington Downtown Inc., she might vote for. But Tuesday she said, "There's nothing historic about that library. That was an old Belk department store. It's going to be needing some fairly serious repair in the not-too-distant future, and the museum is in grave need of repair. If we have the opportunity to effectively do something great in both instances, I would hope we would take it." 

Asked about his preference for Project Grace on Tuesday, County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield said it was interesting to him to see the Cape Fear Museum Advisory Board and Cape Fear Museum Associates Inc. endorsing a move of the museum to the Project Grace site in a StarNews letter to the editor on Monday.

"I think it would just be a good move to have everything in one location, with central parking, greater visibility right there on that main corner of Third and Chestnut where people can see it no matter where you're coming from ... I see it as a win-win for our community if we go down that road. It would also blend in with all the new development that's taking place on Third Street downtown," Barfield said Tuesday.

County Commissioner Skip Watkins said he has not yet made a final decision on which of the four options he would prefer, but could see Scenario No. 4 allowing the library and museum to work together even more than they do now.

"Having them beside each other -- it would be more collaborative. They could share space. They could do all kinds of things together," Watkins said.

The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners could consider a vote on the four scenarios as early as the panel's first October meeting. 

"The first thing people need to remember is whatever we approve, if we approve something, it's not a done deal," Watkins said.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Woody White said he, too, has been leaning toward Scenario No. 4, "but I have not decided. I want to hear more from the public. I want to hear more about the affordability of it before I decide how I'll cast my one vote."

White said the general sense "is that there's great interest and there's some real opportunities, so we'll just have to wait and see."

Three meetings have been scheduled this month to discuss Project Grace, one this evening at 5:30 p.m. on the third floor at the main branch of the library, 201 Chestnut St., and two county informational meetings.

"The county meetings will provide an outline of a study so that our community understands what this project means and the great possibilities it presents," wrote County Manager Chris Coudriet in a message about Project Grace on the county's website. The first of the county meetings will be 6-7 p.m. Sept. 18 at the downtown library, and the second is 6-7:30 p.m. 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," Coudriet's message said.

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