Project Grace gets OK’d by county commissioners

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WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — New Hanover County Commissioners unanimously approved to move forward on Project Grace in downtown Wilmington.

Project Grace is a three-acre redevelopment project bordered by Grace, Third, Chestnut, and Second streets, first discussed in 2017.

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It currently houses the county’s central library, a parking deck, and several parking areas.

If the proposal goes through, that block will be renovated to include a new public library, Cape Fear Museum, offices, and living spaces.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for Project Grace passed on Monday included several updates.

  • An additional 8,000 square feet of shared space for the Public Library and Cape Fear Museum (without any change to costs outlined in the MOU)
  • An additional 60day discovery period for the developer to meet with the staff and boards from the Library and Museum for engagement and feedback
  • Removal of any reference to the city related to the office component on the block

After the 60-day discovery period, the team will begin working on schematic plans and design for the site. Approving and finalizing these plans is expected to take almost a year to complete, and would lead to a development agreement that would outline the project’s final structure, including the financial framework. The agreement would require another public hearing and also be subject to review by the Local Government Commission.  

On Monday at a commissioners’ meeting, several people spoke for and against the project, notably the Historic Wilmington Foundation raised concerns and the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce showed support.

“Demolition of the contributing structures like the Borst could trigger a decrease in size to Wilmington’s national register historic district,” said Historic Wilmington Foundation Executive Director Travis Gilbert. “This would cost downtown properties economic benefits, such as eligibility for the federal historic preservation tax credits.”

“We advocate for the policies and investments that will allow business to grow,” said Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Natalie English. “And why does that matter? If business grows, then jobs grow, then the opportunity toward prosperity for more of our citizens is increased.”

Commission Chair Julia Olson-Boseman released a statement following the vote, saying:

“Today, we redefined and restarted the conversation about Project Grace, approving the MOU which is really just the initial framework for the project that – over the next year – we will build upon and define,” Olson-Boseman said. “I am excited for this new beginning and the possibilities this could bring for our museum, library and downtown community. We still have a long way to go before we have a final agreement, design and plan for the site – but I believe as we work together over the coming year, we will be able to create a project that our community can embrace with shared space and gathering areas, and important public amenities in the heart of downtown.”

Under the approved MOU, the developer would manage the construction of both the public and private facilities on the site and, at the end of construction on the library and museum components, the county would have a 20-year lease on the buildings that is inclusive of the construction, furniture and fixtures. At the end of the 20-year term, New Hanover County would own the library and museum components at no additional cost. The parcel for private development would include residential and mixed use that would enhance the tax value.

“We are fortunate to have two local firms involved in this project – Zimmer Development and LS3P Architecture – that bring a real and tangible commitment to our local community,” stated Olson-Boseman. “And LS3P will also bring a new design perspective that includes our past and focuses on the potentials of this project.”

Through a public private partnership, the county can invest in the library and museum and also guarantee private investment, as well as workforce housing, on the site. In addition to the project site downtown, county staff has recommended that the existing museum property on Market Street be maintained and used as a research and collections center.

Some shared concerns that this would be a downgrade from the current facilities. According to the MOU, the new museum will be 35,000 square feet and the new library will be 38,000 square feet. According to the county, the current museum is 38,420 square feet.

The current library is 101,000 square feet, but the county says only 67,400 square feet is usable space. Of that, 35,000 is used for basement storage and office space for staff, both of which would be moved to another location.

Construction could begin as early as summer 2022, and be completed by summer 2024.

Click here to watch the meeting video.