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URBAN OUTFITTING ACL RAIL BED: Wilmington Rail Trail will connect communities, offer economic stimulation via arts

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Friends of the Wilmington Rail Trail are hoping to turn the old Atlantic Coast Line rail bed into green space, an arts and events hub, and provide safe biking and walking trails for pedestrians.

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Want to know how good ideas begin? Having discussions with the right people.


MAP OF WILMINGTON RAIL TRAIL: Outfitting the rail bed into green space, public arts and event space would allow pedestrians a 20 minute, safe pathway to downtown from McRae Street. Photo courtesy Ned Irvine

MAP OF WILMINGTON RAIL TRAIL: Outfitting the rail bed into green space, public arts and event space would allow pedestrians a 20 minute, safe pathway to downtown from McRae Street. Photo courtesy Ned Irvine


Last year, UNCW studio art professor Ned Irvine approached executive director Rhonda Bellamy of the Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County about transforming unused railroad space from 3rd Street, near CFCC’s Wilson Center, up to McRae Street in the northside community of downtown. The old Atlantic Coast Line rail bed, in his mind, could be utilized for connection, much like its days of operations through the ‘90s. Only in the 21st century, it would be in the vein of art, green space and cultural resurgence. Much like the urban outfits shown in Charlotte’s Rail Trail, the Swamp Rabbit Trail in Greenville, SC, and New York’s High Line, Wilmington Rail Trail would allow pedestrians safe, engaging access to points of downtown without the hassle of growing traffic impeding their daily commute. Irvine, Bellamy and UNCW’s Office of the Arts director Kristen Brogdon led the discussions, as more than two dozen local business people, city officials, council members, and organizational leaders jumped on board as Friends of the Wilmington Rail Trail.

“There are about 2,000 trails around the country, many of them created by broad-based ‘Friends of’ coalitions like ours,” Bellamy says.

“As our group gathered more members from across districts,” Irvine tells, “we realized the tremendous potential of this project to celebrate and respond to the needs and character of each surrounding district, ensuring stakeholders who live and work in the neighborhoods will truly benefit.”

Last week, the group asked for recognition from city council that their idea be supported. They weren’t after money from the city, especially since Hurricane Florence recovery is taking up a great deal of focus, as Mayor Saffo reminded. However, the recognition alone opens the door for the rail trail to be applicable for a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council through its SmART initiative.

“The SmART program partners with North Carolina cities to use their distinctive arts and cultural assets to revitalize neighborhoods and downtowns,” according to Irvine. It basically gives people a sense of belonging and pride in where they live. More so, the grant also welcomes creatives to work, live and visit the city.

“It creates sustainable economic development,” Irvine says, pointing toward Wilson’s Whirligig Park and Durham’s Arts and Entertainment Corridor as clear examples. “Durham’s plan will connect arts and cultural assets in their downtown through an urban trail that combines public art, wayfinding, pedestrian amenities, and interesting landscaping and lighting design,” he details.

Though there is no official design in place for the Wilmington Rail Trail yet, opportunities are endless. Perhaps a farmers’ market could take place toward the McRae side of town, a food desert, wherein no grocery store or healthy food purveyors exist. With a right-of-way space being more than 200 feet wide in some places, it could also showcase art installations and murals—specifically in relation to the area’s history and character. Maybe it could be another place to host a bevy of events, concerts and community celebrations, much like High Line’s stargazing family nights. Curating events would be different in the northside neighborhood than at the 3rd Street entrance near downtown’s Wilson Center and the Brooklyn Arts District, according to Irvine.

“The 3rd Street area was close to the American Coast Line railroad passenger station and its offices as well as the maritime commerce of the river—part of our industrial heritage,” Irvine says. “The Brooklyn community in the 19th century was a thriving community of immigrants and African Americans where the lower end of North 4th Street had become Brooklyn’s commercial center, with merchants of Chinese, German, Greek, Jewish, Scots-Irish and Syrian heritage. The northside neighborhood has its own history, including landmarks like the Thelma Bull and Harry Forden bridges along the trail, and 422 S. 7th Street site of the Daily Record offices where the 1898 massacre began. These are all possible themes for artists to work with.”

Irvine envisions a proposal process wherein local, regional and national artists pitch ideas. More so, he wants surrounding neighborhoods to have a say in how they’re represented—each working with the other to dictate the rail trail’s curation.

“The whole trail is easily walkable in about 20 minutes,” Irvine tells, making accessibility even more appealing all the way down to the Riverwalk. “We hope to accommodate both bikes and pedestrians, along with public art and landscaping . . . that could be embedded in existing infrastructure, placed on pedestals either permanently or on a rotating basis. There could be artwork incorporated into access points in different districts.”

Construction would take place in various phases, with design depending on community and stakeholder input. They want to assemble work groups to represent the districts during the planning process. Costs have yet to be assessed, but Friends of Wilmington Rail Trail hope to take in private donations, and foundation and government grants to complete the project.

Overall, its construction will be a part of the cross-city trail system already in place, which currently consists of 15 miles of multi-use trail, from Wade Park through Halyburton and Empie parks, to the Heide-Trask Drawbridge at the Intracoastal Waterway in Wrightsville Beach. Included will be temporary design elements that can be removed should the railroad system operate again. “This area could be landscaping features that are not hardscape,” Irvine tells.

“Community engagement is the first step as we explore the trail’s potential uses, desired design components, and public/private sources of funding,” Bellamy adds.

Grant writing is in the next phase for the Wilmington Rail Trail to become a reality.

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