City Gets Earful on Water Street Deck

Wilmington, NC – Opinions were plentiful, but solutions few, when the public got its chance to comment on the development of Wilmington's Water Street deck.

The city sold the lot to Gene Merritt eight years ago under an arrangement that called for tearing down the parking structure and building a mixed-used development.

Amendments over the years returned a portion of the property to the city in return for building a new, smaller deck. In return, PB&G is obligated to extend Bijou Park and reopen that block of Chestnut Street.

But more than half the meeting's speakers urged the city to instead try to buy back the entire parcel for a park.

The evening with several options on the table. City management recommends the city fulfill its current obligation to build a parking deck.

But council members also asked staff to look at whether the land's owner would sell the entire parcel back to the city, or possibly agree to more open space at the foot of Chestnut.

Mayor Bill Saffo says, in any case, the city needs a cleaner contract with the property's owners, PB&G Partners LLC.

"When you're sitting here and you're about to renegotiate a contract," Saffo said after last night's meeting, "You have to take a look at all the options on the table, and I know there's a lot of people out there that are passionate about some open space downtown in Wilmington."

Several local groups have endorsed the park proposal, including Residents of Old Wilmington and the Sierra Club.

Alice Mitchell of Residents of Old Wilmington says a park would increase property values and drive shoppers downtown.

"People go up and down the Riverwalk," Mitchell said, "Some friends who were visiting from Arizona said, 'well, where are the shops?' Now, if we had a park that would lead people up toward Front Street, would that be wonderful? They'd find the shops."

However, Herb McKim argued that eradicating all parking from the lot would hurt businesses like his, which backs onto the current parking deck.

If he arrives late in the morning, the existing deck is often full, McKim pointed out. Asking customers to walk further could simply drive them to his competitors.

The Council may vote on plans for the downtown parking deck as early its meeting as next Tuesday.