The Price of Potential Downtown Parks

Wilmington, NC – "Great cities have great parks" - that's the rallying cry of many downtown park supporters. But so far, the city hasn't figured out how to translate such ideals into actual grass and trees. For Parks and Recreation Director Gary Shell, the problem comes down to price.

"The pot of money for the purchase and development of any parks is quite limited," Shell says. "A million dollars, in today's terms, especially with downtown real estate, will not go far. It's just a fact of life."

In addition to the million dollars set aside in last year's parks bond; the city has appropriated another million from the capitol improvements fund, all of which downtown realtors estimate buys less than half an acre in the heart of the city's desirable riverfront.

But as a number of potential park locations have recently hit headlines, the attention is making some private owners take notice.

Lawyer Michael Glancy and his wife purchased the site of the former Icehouse bar last year. It's currently just a weedy lot hunkered behind a fence on Water Street, but with a view of the Henrietta III riverboat and Eagle's Island.

They're talking with condo developers, but Glancy says all the talk about acquiring public space downtown got him to look at the location a different way.

He says, "I thought, well, here you are, there's nothing happening here now. This is an optimum time for you folks to take advantage of this."

With an asking price in the two million plus range, Glancy describes the city's response to his suggestion as lukewarm.

Parks Director Shell says the Icehouse lot is one of several privately owned parcels his staff is considering near the river, all of them either vacant or currently used as parking. But with so much at stake, it's been hard to pursue any specific location.

"We have some tough decisions that are going to have to be made. But it's better to have choices than be stuck with a limited number of options," Shell says.

Those options also include turning Thalian Hall's parking lot into a park, which supporters argue could become a haven for downtown workers, and opponents say would drive audiences away from the historic theatre.

The City Council has voted to pursue purchase of the land from New Hanover County, its current owner, and to commission plans for a possible park. But Thalian's Executive Director Tony Rivenbark says he's yet to see a design scenario that would preserve access to his theatre.

More recently, attention has turned to the Water Street parking deck, where the city is in the process of sorting out its agreements with the owner, PB&G Partners, LLC.

Bud Dealey, the 'B' in PB&G, says his company would consider selling the parcel to the city, although after years of planning to build a mixed use development on the site, the park proposal came as something as a surprise.

"I think the bond issue started it, Dealey says, and then the controversy over Thalian Park got the juices flowing, as far as a park was concerned. And I think then people started looking around for what else can we do to make our city a really welcome waterfront."

The City Council votes Tuesday night on whether to pursue buying a portion of the land, which assessed at $4.7 million dollars, a price Dealey describes as "within striking distance" of the price he'd consider.

Councilwoman Laura Padgett sponsored the resolution and says she isn't worried about selling the rest of the city on the price tag,

"Because the riverfront is the most visited park in the city, by people who live all around the city and beyond," Padgett says, what goes in downtown is valuable to the whole city."

Wherever Wilmington ends up locating its park, or parks, downtown, the one thing everyone involved agrees on is that those choices will have to be made soon. Because as much as people may want space to throw a frisbee or fly a kite, it's downtown real estate prices that are really soaring.

City Council resolutions on Water Street deck for the January 16th meeting (item 11).

The city's information page on the Parks Bond Referendum