Twenty years ago, a major development was on its way to where cows used to graze.
That’s why Wayne Clark led efforts to create the city’s first mixed-use ordinance in 1999, because of the possibility of new development replacing nearly 400 acres of farmland on Military Cutoff Road in New Hanover County.
City officials at the time didn’t want a repeat of the sprawl on corridors like South College Road.
“The question the city council members had asked me at the end of 1999 – they were aware that the Hardy Parker Farm was for sale – was, ‘How do we do something out there that’s different from the other major roads,’” said Clark, who was the city of Wilmington’s planning manager and is now New Hanover’s planning chief. “They were not interested in more standard street frontage retail with houses behind it. The direction they gave me at the time was, ‘Go write some kind of zoning that would make it easier for them to do some kind of integrated mixed-use project.’”
Clark did so, and five years later, the first store opened at Mayfaire Town Center, part of a development that includes Mayfaire Community Center, offices, apartments, condominiums and homes.
“I don’t think we anticipated the regional impact of Mayfaire,” Clark said.
The mixed-use community on Military Cutoff Road referred to collectively as Mayfaire is not as bustling as it was a year ago, in large part because of the coronavirus pandemic but also because of online shopping and the ever-changing tastes of consumers.
The worldwide health and economic crisis has kept some customers away, left some offices nearly empty as employees work remotely and continued, as of September, to keep the anchor movie theater closed at Mayfaire Town Center.
But people still live in and around Mayfaire and shop each day at the town center and adjacent Mayfaire Community Center, which is anchored by a Harris Teeter grocery store. And the development has influenced other commercial and residential areas throughout the Wilmington area.
A little more than two decades ago, the plan began to take shape for Mayfaire, something that had no equal in the region at the time.
“This town center concept had been tried in a few markets but predominantly very large markets,” said H.J. Brody, whose company, BrodyCo. Inc., partnered with Zimmer Development to create Mayfaire Town Center and Mayfaire Community Center. “It intrigued us.”
The Brody Co.-Zimmer group was just one of the bidders for the Hardy Parker Farm site.
“We were just fortunate that after talking to the owner and explaining our vision and putting together the right team, [owner Mabel Weeks, Hardy Parker’s widow] selected us to buy the land. We went under contract with her in July 1999,” Brody said. “Twenty-one years down the road, and I think that if you look back at our initial boards and if you look back at what the urban land planner said would be good for the area, I think that’s what we produced in a first-class fashion.”
The partners paid nearly $10 million for 300 acres in 2000. Nineteen years later, Wilmington-based development firm Swain & Associates paid a little over $13 million for 23 acres at the intersection of Eastwood and Military Cutoff roads. For that land, adjacent to Mayfaire Community Center, Swain & Associates has been planning a more than $250 million mixed-use development called CenterPoint.
The building blocks for a successful higher-end shopping area combined with housing and offices were already there off Military Cutoff and Eastwood roads, including Landfall, a 2,200-acre gated community developed in the mid- 1980s that now holds some of the priciest real estate in the region.
Landfall, along with Wrightsville Beach’s evolution into a community where some homeowners live there year-round, helped create the demographics necessary for a development like Mayfaire, which then influenced subsequent projects and job creation, said developer Raiford Trask III, president of Trask Land Co.
Trask’s father initiated the development of the mixed-use project Autumn Hall on Eastwood Road, something Trask III continues to help develop today.
Construction of the 235-acre development Autumn Hall began in 2007, three years after the first store at Mayfaire opened.
“I think Mayfaire set the bar and helped solidify that Military Cutoff and Eastwood are the new center of town and will be going forward,” Trask said.
Other developers agree.
“As Wilmington’s first large-scale planned development beyond the shopping mall model, Mayfaire has been extraordinarily successful, and it opened the door to combining a variety of uses into the same development,” said Jeff Kentner, owner of Charlotte-based development firm State Street, which created two major residential portions of Mayfaire. “A single-use approach to development, which contributes to Wilmington’s traffic congestion woes, is no longer a viable model.”
State Street developed both The Village at Mayfaire and The Reserve at Mayfaire, two multifamily projects.
Mayfaire would likely not be created the same if it were on the drawing table today, said Kentner, who also has some criticisms.
“Mayfaire is not a true mixeduse development. It is a sprawling, multi-use project on 400 acres,” he said. “In hindsight, Mayfaire was not a good use of a tract that size, but it was better than the development pattern that previously existed in Wilmington. Mayfaire is far too dependent on vehicular transportation and actually contributes to traffic congestion. Had it been developed as a denser, walkable, mixed-use development with structured parking, it would have relieved traffic congestion, not contributed to it.”
Kentner takes issue with the amount of parking.
“Mayfaire has way too much surface parking due to the minimum parking requirements in the MX zoning district. The sprawling parking lots in Mayfaire can accommodate shopping the day after Thanksgiving and then some 365 days a year, which is a poor utilization of land,” Kentner said. “My hunch is that over time, portions of those surface parking lots may be converted to structured parking as a means to add additional uses to the project.”
Glenn Harbeck, the city of Wilmington’s director of planning, development and transportation, said Mayfaire “rejuvenated interest in outdoor shopping in a street environment as opposed to an indoor mall.”
“You’re seeing the long-term influence of it on the renovation of Independence Mall [which has been the Wilmington area’s largest indoor shopping center] to more of an indoor-outdoor facility,” he said.
Harbeck said Mayfaire’s not perfect but was “good for its day. I think there’s still some pretty large parking fields around the development, which are not ideal.”
That said, another strength of Mayfaire is “that it is well connected to the area around it. People from some of the older residential areas on Eastwood Road can still get to Mayfaire without ever getting out on the main road,” Harbeck said.
Kentner said the infrastructure is in place to do more with Mayfaire and its surface lots and that infrastructure “should be taken advantage of, particularly given the short supply of developable land.”
“Like it or not, the population is growing rapidly, and intelligent land-use decisions must be made now in order to address the growing number of people moving to the area,” he said. “There are no ‘do-overs’ when it comes to land-use decisions.”
New Hanover County and the city of Wilmington, along with other municipalities and counties in the area, have been revamping their land-use plans and development regulations as they aim to prepare for more growth.
In addition to attracting new residents and influencing other developments in the region over time, the creations of the Mayfaire area also led to more jobs in what has become a major regional financial sector.
Before the COVID-19 crisis began, New Hanover County officials recently looked at where most jobs are located in the county and found that the Military Cutoff and Eastwood road section of town had the third-largest cluster behind midtown Wilmington where New Hanover Regional Medical Center is located and downtown Wilmington.
“I don't think we realized it would end up being one of the larger employment hubs of the region outside the service industry,” Clark said, referring to the days when Mayfaire was still on the drawing board. “We were hoping for that, but I don't know that we thought it would be as successful as it was.”
These days, the pandemic comes into play in any discussion about commercial real estate.
“COVID-19 has placed a ton of stress on the retail sector and expedited the Amazon-initiated shift from traditional brick and mortar to e-commerce. However, if you drive through Mayfaire you will notice the parking lots are not empty,” said Cody Cress of The CRESS Group of Wilmington-based Coldwell Banker Commercial Sun Coast Partners. “People are still visiting the restaurants and cafes, although the experience has changed by focusing on dining al fresco, take-out and delivery. Grocery stores are thriving in this era.”
In August, officials with CBL & Associates Properties, the Chattanooga, Tennessee-based firm that owns Mayfaire Town Center and manages Mayfaire Community Center, said the firm planned to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October. They said day-today operations at their centers wouldn’t be affected.
“There will likely be a recapitalization, restructuring of debt, perhaps a change of ownership and change in the tenant mix at Mayfaire,” said Cress, who is not affiliated with CBL & Associates Properties. “However, in the end, the Military Cutoff/Landfall submarket is a very desirable location to be in and will resume to the normal hustle and bustle as we gain control over COVID-19.”