WilmingtonBiz Magazine

Doubling Downtown

By David Frederiksen, posted Mar 13, 2020
(Photos by T.J. Drechsel)
With new construction and development nearly ubiquitous in downtown Wilmington in recent years, residents old and new are flocking to the Port City’s urban core, according to city officials and local real estate professionals. Multi-pronged and hardly accidental, the surge can be traced in part to a municipal development plan drafted more than two decades ago.
“The key public policy guidance for the downtown renaissance dates back to a series of public meetings in 2004 and before that to the city’s 1997 Vision 2020 Plan,” said Ed Wolverton, president and CEO of the nonprofit Wilmington Downtown Inc. (WDI). “Part of that plan was to add more downtown residences, and we’ve been really successful doing that.”
Bannerman Station. Brooklyn Building. Modern Baking Co. The Weldon building. They’re just a few of downtown’s early, pre-Great Recession condo and apartment developments that paved the way for more recent developments, including Sawmill Point, Pier 33, Flats on Front and the mixeduse behemoth River Place.
“These projects have translated to a dramatic uptick in residents in the last five years,” Wolverton said.

Downtown’s residential base – defined as people living from “bridge to bridge” roughly between Fifth Avenue and the river – is estimated at about 3,000, said Wolverton, a number that’s been fairly static until recently.
“But with what’s in the pipeline in terms of new residential projects, we’re poised to add another 3,000, doubling the number of residents downtown,” he said. “More people living downtown will make it a true 24-hour center.” Helping drive that effort is mixed-use development, or buildings and communities that blend retail, residential and commercial spaces, something that was also part of the Vision 2020 plan.
“Retail follows rooftops,” said Natalie English, president and CEO of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce. “Access to nearby goods and services and the ability to work, live and play in a pedestrian-friendly, urban environment is what these residents are looking for and what will make them invest.”

Margee Herring, public relations consultant for the mixed-use development River Place, which just began preleasing apartments, can vouch for that. The 13-story project is a publicprivate partnership between Chapel Hill-based East West Partners and the city of Wilmington that has replaced a defunct parking deck.  
“More residents means a need for more accessible and essential services and work environments,” said Herring  in an email. “East West Partners’ project at 226 Front St. is a good example of what comes after the flood of new residents – flex office space, such as what’s being developed now, is more achievable when you have a tenant base that is within a desirable walking distance.”
Circa Restaurant Group, Mellow Mushroom and Axis Fitness will be among River Place’s first commercial tenants.
River Place isn’t the only downtown Wilmington interest for East West Partners, which is also renovating an historical building on North Front Street and hoping to redevelop the city’s northern gateway.
“We really like downtown,” said Lucien Ellison, senior managing partner for East West Partners, “and we hope to continue to be developing in this area of Wilmington for the foreseeable future.”

As a longtime Wilmington resident, Herring knows well the  history of downtown and its desire for transformation, including attracting more residents. 
“When I moved here in 1989, a 1960s-era parking deck stood where  River Place is, and an industrial site stood where Pier 33 is,” Herring said, referring in the latter case to apartments now under construction between the Wilmington Convention Center and PPD. “… Wilmington’s waterfront has gone from industrial and ugly to pedestrian and welcoming. … But in all this development, we haven’t lost what makes our city unique. We have maintained a respect for our historic architecture, urban streetscapes and overall scale. Developers and planners have allowed downtown Wilmington to grow in a manner that respects its roots.”

Places such as Mayfaire, The Pointe at Barclay and select midtown areas are successful examples of local mixed-use development, said English, emphasizing that combined retail, residential and office space shouldn’t be exclusive to downtown alone.
“Mixed-use can be enjoyed by everyone,” she said.
No discussion about downtown’s population growth would be complete, however, without mention of the Port City’s sizable neighbor (at 1,050 square miles) across the river, said English.
“Brunswick County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation,” she said. “They’re coming, so we have to accommodate that growth.”
But those residents who are here or on the way are a little different this time around.
Yes, Wilmington still attracts retirees and preretirees looking for a low-maintenance (no more yard work), amenity-filled (pools, biking and boating) and better-weather (sand over snow) lifestyle. “But the last couple of years have also seen growth in the number of young families and young professionals coming,” English said.
It’s a similar sentiment shared by John Hinnant, who served as president and CEO of WDI from 2007 to 2013.
“My sense is that these are upwardly mobile, young professionals …,” said Hinnant in an email. Hinnant, who now works as vice president and broker at Eastern Carolinas Commercial Real Estate, called downtown’s development and residential uptick “a welcome sight, having seen it on paper all these years in the Vision 2020 plan.”
And with downtown’s new, pedestrian-friendly, amenity-laden housing certainly not cheap – a recent market analysis indicates condominium list prices from the low $200s to almost $1 million – it’ll take a young professional’s salary to pay the rent or mortgage.

Which begs the question: Who gets to live downtown, and will the prospect of gentrification displace, marginalize or price out certain income groups?
English said city council members and other local elected officials, in cooperation with developers and planners, are working on this and other quality of life issues.
“It’s a careful balancing act,” said English, noting that areas most vulnerable to downtown gentrification would probably be above Fourth Street. “We are encouraging developers to work with and assist the city with infrastructure needs that are an inevitable part of growth, including affordable housing.”  
And what about other urban infrastructure needs: water, sewer, roads and parking?
“City council is very keenly engaged with both the private and public sector …,” said English, to keep up with both  economic development and population growth needs, especially transportation. “The city and county are working with transportation officials on the state level to address needs and make improvements.”
The bottom line, she said: “We have to keep growing. If not, we’re dying – we  have to remain attractive for jobs. If not, jobs go other places.”
In its Summary of Issues section, the city’s Vision 2020 plan years ago said as much: “Despite local educational opportunities and a good quality of life, Wilmington is exporting its bright and talented youth to other metropolitan areas. This ‘brain drain’… occurs because there are not enough quality jobs.”
For Hayley Jensen and her husband, Stephen Durley, owners of the Beer Barrio restaurant at the corner of North Front and Princess streets, life at northern downtown’s Sawmill Point apartments with their 3-year-old is good – and convenient.
“I didn’t think I’d go back to apartment living,” said the beer sommelier and one-time homeowner, “but lots of people today are renting by choice.” She cites low-or-no maintenance as one of the determining factors in her decision.

Jensen said right off the bat that Sawmill’s Nutt Street location has a “very walkable feel.” Close to her place of business and overlooking the Cape Fear River, Sawmill has amenities – a pool, gym, yoga classes, even a dogwashing station, to name a few – that are hard to beat, she says.
“And then there’s the River Shack,” she says, referring to the complex’s freestanding event space for socializing and entertaining.
In general downtown, Jensen said one important thing was still missing: “We absolutely need a grocery.”
It’s a matter of metrics, Wolverton said.
“(A downtown population) upwards of 5,000 folks will attract large grocers,” he said. “And we’re just not quite there yet.”
Jensen said from her Beer Barrio point of view, downtown’s new residential construction these days – “it’s literally surrounding us” – has undoubtedly led to more business, meaning more hungry stomachs and thirsty palates.
“As a business owner, you just see that there’s more people (downtown),” she said. “There’s not that commitment to have to drive downtown, if you already live there.”
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