Real Estate - Commercial

Northern Riverfront Project Sets Sail Downtown

By Cece Nunn, posted Aug 28, 2015
Yachts that dock at Port City Marina, part of a mixed-use project under way, have a view of PPD’s headquarters. (Photo by Cece Nunn)
In a city plan for a future park along the Cape Fear River, the northern riverfront is described as an area “projected to develop as a high-density, mixed-use urban destination.”

The shape of that downtown district, already known for being home to the 12-story headquarters for pharmaceutical company PPD, is already changing. In the past few years, developers have worked to build a marina that caters to the |owners of large yachts, and plans for more new buildings and features are on the horizon.

Chuck Schoninger, managing member of Port City Marina development company USA InvestCo., said he expects a wave of yacht owners to fill the new marina’s slips by September.

“This is a big-boy marina – 50-foot yachts or bigger. The bigger boats, the 150-foot yachts – that’s really our sweet spot for what we’re trying to achieve, which is really fun for the downtown area,” Schoninger said.

The customers who lease the slips, which total 134 in Phase 1 of the marina with more expected to be available soon, will be able to get off their boats and walk to the restaurants, bars and shops of downtown Wilmington, Schoninger said. A band shell at the southern end of the marina’s pier will host bands and concert series.

In what could be considered the first of many attractions to come, a visiting tall ship El Galeon, a reproduction of a 16th-century Spanish Galleon, was docked and available for tours there earlier this month.

Hotel Indigo and Pier 33

Marina users will also be able, according to more USA InvestCo. plans for adjacent land, to walk to a new hotel and restaurants in the near future.

“We’re in negotiations with the city right now on the parking structure [connected to the hotel],”

Schoninger said in July. He said he hoped an agreement would be worked out by this fall, with a groundbreaking on the hotel and 325-space parking structure taking place not long after that.

About 150 of those spaces would be needed for guests staying at the new downtown lodgings, a 131-room Hotel Indigo, and as parking for the users of about 10,000 square feet of retail and office space that the project is expected to include. Some of that office space, on the second level, is slated to be used for the new offices of USA InvestCo., currently located on North Third Street. 

The rest of the parking structure spaces could be used by the city, Schoninger said.

“Any ability for them to get parking is exciting,” Schoninger said.

The need for parking is expected to increase, Schoninger said, when the Wilmington Convention Center hotel, which will be close to the marina, is completed.

The city announced July 22 that the final potential legal hurdle for the hotel was cleared when no appeal to a recent court decision was filed with the N.C. Supreme Court before the end of a 35-day deadline.

Last month, the N.C. Court of Appeals upheld a ruling in the city’s favor regarding the sale of land where the hotel will be built, next to the convention center on Nutt Street in downtown Wilmington. Harmony Hospitality Inc. plans to build a $33.6 million, 186-room Embassy Suites Hotel, but no plans for when construction would begin have been announced yet, said Malissa Talbert, city of Wilmington spokeswoman.

In November, Schoninger sold other land near the marina, where he had planned to build an apartment complex, for about $7 million.

The new owners, DeWitt Carolinas Inc., are continuing with the plan for the seven-story Pier 33 multifamily project, he said. The luxury apartment community will sit on a 5-acre site, and according to past announcements, is expected to include 300 units in varying sizes.

Project schedule

USA InvestCo.’s northern riverfront development was financed through the federal EB-5 program, where for a minimum of $500,000 worth of an investment, individual investors are granted green cards to move their families to the U.S.  

In addition to issues involving finding additional funding that company officials described to the Greater Wilmington Business Journal at the beginning of 2014, the northern riverfront development has experienced some other kinds of delays since it was first proposed.

“We’re probably a year to a year-and-a-half behind from our schedule,” Schoninger said last month. “There’s a bunch of things that kind of lead up to that. Construction here was a lot harder than we ever anticipated, so it took a lot more money.”

Crews had to pull up what Schoninger called “piles and piles of junk” from the river to be able to create the marina. “We spent a week on two or three rocks,” he said.

The need to clear the water, including removing long pieces of wood of the kind once used in shipbuilding, led to the start of new businesses for Schoninger and his team.

“We’re probably one of the biggest owners in the country of antique heart pine and antique heart cypress. We’re using it in all of our venues, and we’re selling it,” he said.

Some of the wood was used for the floor in the current marina office, which is expected to be moved to space in the Pier 33 apartment complex eventually, and more could be used in restaurant construction.

The planned eateries – BlackFinn and Vida – could be finished by spring. The winter after that, Schoninger said, the company can decide whether to continue to expand.

“More and more you’ll see activity,” Schoninger said. “We’re very excited by what we have so far.”
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