WilmingtonBiz Magazine

Sound Off: Weighing In On Housing Focus

By David Joyner, posted Dec 14, 2023
David Joyner
It’s time for Wilmington to grow up.

I spent the last nine months campaigning for city council. Two seemingly competing themes emerged as I knocked on doors and phone banked voters: (1) solve the housing affordability crisis; (2) stop overdevelopment. Often, people identified both of these as a priority, leaving some policymakers at a loss on what to do.

But I reject the notion that we’re limited to either becoming a place where it’s a luxury to live within city limits or surrounding ourselves with high-rise apartments. We need leaders to say yes to development done right. Here’s what I mean:

Other candidates spoke often during the campaign about the need to diversify our local economy by supporting economic gardening rather than economic big-game hunting. That is, small- and medium-sized businesses make all the difference when it comes to bringing talent and business to the area, as opposed to putting all of our eggs in one basket and only trying to woo large companies to headquarter in Wilmington.

I feel the same way about housing development. Regularly we see the city council asked to rezone either for small, single-family residential projects or for large, apartment-style mid- or high-rises. As a city, we lack a critical middle housing element: Where are the duplexes, townhomes, rowhomes, cottage-courts and so on? 

As the eighth-largest city by population in North Carolina and in the second-smallest county by land area, I see this as the only meaningful solution that allows us to have all three: adding housing stock, increasing residential density and maintaining the character of existing neighborhoods.

Let me be clear; there is a role for density through apartment and multi-use development, but it belongs in our northern, commercial downtown. There’s certainly no lack of gray space in that area. 

Indeed, I want the city to revisit the Northern Gateway Project, which was voted down in October. Without some vision for what those empty blocks can become, we’re left with an eyesore near the top of our Riverwalk and a wasted opportunity to chip away at the thousands of new units of housing stock we desperately need to bring online.

Crucial to this conversation is recognizing the data around migration and our aging population. North Carolina is a top-10 state for growth nationally. Southeastern North Carolina is growing at one of the fastest rates within the state. In New Hanover County, but for migration, our population would be decreasing because of low birth rates. Instead, our growth rate is 4% (compare that to neighboring Brunswick’s 12% and Pender’s 9%).

We have to accept that Wilmington isn’t the same small city we know and love from Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill. Now more than ever, we’re a regional hub where Southeastern North Carolinians come for health care, education, work and recreation. 

Our swelling population trends, not unique to our area, mean that these changes are here to stay. If we ignore that, we’ll – not so slowly – price out and push out our neighbors we need the most: teachers, nurses, first responders and other groups we think of when we’re discussing workforce housing. I don’t think we want that.

Instead, we have the opportunity to lead Wilmington into a vibrant future that embraces our role as a regional leader, accepting that this means a bigger Wilmington and a taller downtown. 

I’m committed to working with the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and the N.C. Department of Transportation to build out our transit infrastructure. I’m committed to building a walkable, bikeable city. And I’m committed to predicating this all on environmental protections that preserve our wetlands and tree canopy. 

As we navigate the path toward sustainable, responsible growth, we must weave environmental considerations into the fabric of policymaking. To me, our wetlands and tree canopy are integral to our city’s identity; let’s commit to a healthier, more resilient community by protecting them for generations to come.

It’s time for Wilmington to grow up. By building higher downtown, creating denser middle housing across the city and putting our environment at the center of decision-making, we’re ready to grow into the regional leader Southeastern North Carolina needs while maintaining the quality of life Wilmingtonians deserve.

David Joyner, an assistant district attorney, was the top vote-getter in November’s Wilmington City Council race. A newcomer to public office, Joyner joins Salette Andrews and incumbent Kevin Spears, who both also won in the election, on the six-member council were sworn in this month.
Editor's note: The Greater Wilmington Business Journal publishes a regular series of op-eds, opinion columns about ideas for sparking economic growth in the region. If you have a column topic to be considered, email [email protected]
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