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WilmingtonBiz Magazine

Sound Off: History Under Siege

By Travis Gilbert, posted Sep 27, 2021
Travis Gilbert
Wilmington is proud of the historic charm and architectural diversity found within the city’s eight historic districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
 
Yet, Wilmington’s historic districts are under attack from the razing and alteration of structures that strip the buildings of their architectural integrity.
 
New Hanover County’s Project Grace continues this damaging trend by calling for the demolition of the Borst Building, a contributing resource in the Wilmington National Register Historic District.
 
Constructed in 1926 as Wilmington’s first Chrysler dealership, the Borst Building’s slated demolition creates a dangerous precedent of local government eroding the character of our city’s National Register Historic Districts.
 
Preserving Wilmington’s contributing resources is essential to maintaining buildings’ eligibility for historic preservation tax credits. Only buildings within the boundaries of a National Register Historic District (or buildings individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places) are eligible for federal and state historic rehabilitation tax credits.
 
Since the federal historic preservation tax credit’s inception, 166 projects (totaling over $42 million in private investment) have been completed in New Hanover County.
 
A 2008 study from UNC-Chapel Hill estimated that 23,100 jobs were created by preservation tax credit projects in North Carolina.
 
Historic preservation tax credits are a proven tool for the economic revitalization of downtown Wilmington, as evidenced by Lighthouse Films’ Richter Building, the Seabird restaurant’s Solomon Building or Monteith Construction’s office in the Knights of Pythias Building.
 
When irreplaceable contributing resources are lost to the wrecking ball, it increases the likelihood of a boundary decrease for our historic districts. Boundary decreases recently occurred in the North Carolina communities of Kinston, Oxford and Flat Rock, to name a few, and the consequences are dire: properties’ future eligibility for historic preservation tax credits and federal protections for historic neighborhoods.
 
Boundary decreases to the Wilmington National Register Historic District also negatively affect Historic Wilmington Foundation and other stakeholders’ ability to advocate for neighborhoods.
 
Under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, federal agencies must take into account the effects of their actions on properties listed on – or eligible for – the N ational Register of Historic Places.
 
Currently, the city’s rail realignment project triggered Section 106 due to its potential effects on the Wilmington National Register Historic District; a Cape Fear Memorial Bridge Replacement will likely follow suit.
 
Should the Wilmington National Register Historic District’s boundaries decrease, neighborhoods protected by the National Historic Preservation Act might be excluded from federal review and local advocacy.
 
HWF appreciates New Hanover County’s desire to invest in the Main Library and Cape Fear Museum. Dedicating the Armory Building on Market Street (the Cape Fear Museum’s current location) to collections storage should be applauded as an exercise in historic preservation that ensures our county-owned artifacts are adequately protected.
 
Yet, HWF believes Project Grace presents an opportunity to demonstrate how local government can prioritize the preservation of National Register Historic Districts through adaptive reuse, and we hope to see the Borst Building stand as a bedrock of the block for decades to come.
 
Travis Gilbert is Historic Wilmington Foundation’s executive director and serves on the board of directors at Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts, Southport Historical Society and Old Baldy Foundation.
Click here to read WDI President and CEO Holly Childs’ opinion column about Project Grace.
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