“Beverly Tetterton, the historian, tells us that there used to be a spring at the base of Chestnut Street,” Paul Lawler, president of the Residents of Old Wilmington (ROW), said with a grin. “The legend that went with that was that if you drank from the spring, that meant you would come back to Wilmington.”
Lawler references that idea and another proposed by Joe Dutton about an outdoor waterfall movie screen as two destination-oriented notions that have come up regarding possible uses of the Water Street parking deck site, located at Grace and Water streets. “Imagine if we had some real openness and let all the creativity of Wilmington come forward with some ideas,” Lawler continued.
Lawler and Harper Peterson, our former mayor, are discussing the concerns regarding the lack of public involvement in the proposed public-private redevelopment of the property. “Because there has been a lack of public involvement up to this point, we thought it would be worthy to have the public brought up to date on all the information related to the redevelopment of the Water Street parking deck,” Peterson explained. “It has been over a year since there has been any meaningful—and that’s questionable whether it was meaningful a year ago, February 2014—of any public involvement or presentation to them of what’s going on.”
After a year of feeling like Cassandra on this (ignored as a nagging doom-sayer), it is startling to realize that there are other people who share my concerns. “Because you remember that meeting wasn’t, ‘What do you think about this space?’ It was, ‘What do you think about this question and this question,’” Lawler recalled.
“Right,” I responded. “And anyone who asked a question basically got told to shut up.”
What I don’t add is that I was so frustrated and disappointed by the way people were treated at that meeting, I have shied away from such events since. If I had one take-away from that event, it was that the plan was a done deal and any public involvement was a mere formality for the sake of appearance. But, please, don’t make the mistake of thinking the plebeians should speak.
“We want—we demand—a public hearing,” Peterson stated in his emphatic, calm voice. “I think that’s paramount to this whole issue. The people need to have an opportunity to speak on this. They’re developing that property for over $60 million, with a $20 million contribution of city tax-payer dollars.”
So I asked: When there is public response to something that council feels is already resolved, how much power, in reality, does the public have about getting an issue relooked at and addressed?
Peterson inhaled and then answered: “Good question. The train, I don’t think, has left the station. They haven’t signed an agreement. Having some experience—you know, through my public service—this isn’t done overnight. You have to hammer out a memorandum of understanding, hammer out a contract with the developer. You have to scrutinize all the numbers—the dollars, especially when the money’s coming from the public. I put my faith in the city staff to do that, and it’s not going to happen overnight.”
Then I heard Peterson outline exactly what I have been saying for the last year. He notes how we hired DFI (Development Finance Institute), “a program of UNC, a public institution, to do a study to give us the highest and best use of this property for residential, commercial and public-parking needs. The public space part of it took a back seat. We paid them $50,000 to do this study. In addition, they get a contingency of 1 percent of the total cost of the project when the agreement is signed. The proposal they chose—East West—proposes the project to cost $68 million. So they’ll get $680,000 in addition to the $50,000 that will be paid by the developer. Still, it’s an interesting deal for a public institution to be acting like a private contractor. It tells me that the consultant is going to get a kickback; he’s going to propose something that’s hefty.”
Which of course, they have. Not just hefty on the price tag, but also on the actual weight. As Peterson points out, the banks of the Cape Fear have been moved over the years, and where Water Street is now, used to be actually in the water. All that land where the parking deck currently is, the Hilton, etc., is reclaimed land.
“You build a five-story, 550-car parking garage out of concrete and put on top of it and alongside it 17 stories—as proposed here—[and] that’s a lot of weight on an add on [land],” Peterson said. “We don’t want to be strapped with structural problems 10, 15 or 20 years down the road.”
Peterson also noted problems with water intrusion in several of the existing properties on the riverfront. He asked if we want to have the same problems. Lawler, ever the accountant mind, came back to the quantifiable questions: “What is staff going to do in that memorandum of understanding? What will they work it out to? What will they agree to?”
“So our thoughts there should be no subsidy for the developer,” Lawler said. “It should not exceed the height limitations. Right now the drawing presented is 172 feet tall, which is above the 130-foot height limitation for that part of downtown. There are still some things the city can do to get this within the rules that every other developer has to abide by. The nature of this thing is they call it a public-private partnership. The city wants a very large parking deck built on the site to replace the existing parking that is driving pretty much everything that is going on here.”
Lawler outlines the proposed parking subsidy for tenants of the apartments in the structure: “The way that’s going to work is the developer will build the deck. The city will pay for it. The city will own that deck, and then the tenants will pay a small amount toward the cost of the parking subsidy. So the tenants get to park for a discounted price. According to the city, it will cost over $200 to maintain and manage a space in a parking deck. They’ll only pay $100.”
Lawler asked where that difference is going to come from. Will it be through a property-tax increase? Parking fees? A Municipal Service District? “We want a full accounting of what it’s going to cost the tax payer and how the tax payer will pay for it,” he said.
As a former member of the Downtown Parking Advisory Committee, he also asked what will happen if parking rates are increased 25 percent or 50 percent. Will it go from $1 an hour on the meters or a $1.25? How will that affect business?
Back to the subsidies. Lawler ticks off the list: “Subsidy for the tenants. This developer doesn’t have to pay for the ground: This developer will rent air rights. So we have a piece of property worth somewhere over $5 million. They’ll only pay air rights, and currently, they’re proposing to pay $1.3 million for the air rights. They don’t have to pay for the ground. They don’t have to pay for the foundation to the building because the city will pay for the foundation. They don’t have to pay for parking for their tenants because the city will pay for half or more of that cost.”
Then he reminded that the proposed project actually is going to spill over the current space into Chestnut and Water streets. The physical scope of this thing just seems to loom larger and larger.
Lawler returned to the thorn of the meeting last year. “There hasn’t been much citizen involvement in this project,” he reminded. “That meeting was very proscribed with specific questions, and it didn’t allow the public to ask anything. It also didn’t have much in the way of what might be coming. There hasn’t been a way to respond to this in a public forum. In addition, they tout a survey that was done.“
I interrupt to point out that the survey did not allow for any real response or comments. “Exactly,” Lawler agreed. “My favorite was question 5: It asked about public space—[Whether] the public space here is the correct amount, too much, or no opinion. If you felt there should be more public space: no option. If you didn’t respond to the question, you couldn’t submit the survey. The survey would only be submitted if you answered every question. So folks such as myself who think there should be more public space were left out [and] excluded from that survey.”
I asked what would be next—what could the public do about it? Peterson smiled and endorsed the democratic process: “Contact your city council members, talk to your neighbors, raise concerns, and demand facts.”