Project Grace And A Library

Oct 3, 2017

New Hanover County Commissioners are moving ahead with a public - private redevelopment of a county-owned block in downtown Wilmington.  Project Grace might also include moving the Cape Fear Museum downtown and building a new library. Tearing down the existing library is not such a popular idea.

The block is encircled by North Second, North Third, Chestnut and Grace Streets. The commissioners are leaning toward a plan for a hotel, condos, apartments, office and retail space, and still maintain the library – in one form or another.

“If you take out historic fabric you can’t put it back. 

Gareth Evans is standing on the corner of Chestnut and 2nd Streets, looking at the library. He’s the executive director of the Bellamy Mansion Museum.

“It was originally a Belk’s that opened in 1951, mid-century modern is the style of it. Then in the late 1970s, 1978, Belk moved to the mall and the county took it on, renovated it, and opened as a library in 1982.”

When county staff first unveiled Project Grace last summer, they presented four scenarios. Three possibilities tore down the existing library and replaced it. Evans says there is no need to bulldoze what is already there.

“It was actually designed, because it was a department store, to be renovated and rehabilitated and in fact it was when they turned it from a Belk into a library.”

“Playing devil’s advocate, to my eye, it’s not the most attractive building...”

“You know I’m the director of the Bellamy Mansion and that’s a very different style, but people have said that about that style of building too. When things go out of fashion. You have to give something time to be appreciated. Mid-century modern is not everybody’s cup of tea. But again it is historic it does add to the fabric.   And one of the main problems I have with the proposals going on is this is a viable building, you could renovate it, you can use it, it’s being used as a library right this minute, there is no real need to knock it down.” 

Beverly Grasley agrees. She’s on the Board of Directors of ROW, Residents of Old Wilmington.

“One is we would like to see the library stay where it is, the existing building, and do whatever repairs need to be done to it. And we are very much in favor of keeping the park. The park that was just constructed there.” 

All those options do remain on the table. At Monday’s commissioners meeting, rather than choose the final option for Project Grace, the board voted to request proposals outlined by the fourth of four options. That’s an option with a new library. However the development request also includes an analysis of renovating the existing building.

County Commissioner Rob Zapple.

“I think the brilliance you saw here in tonight’s meeting was the staff deciding to step aside from the scenarios, which I think were almost being constrictive at this point, and going instead to a list of 11 and now I think with the ones I and Commissioner Kusek added tonight is about 14 different guidelines that allow a real blending of ideas and incorporating ideas from the community, those will be guidelines that a potential developer will have, to help shape the project as we go forward.”

Again Gareth Evans.

“This actually is one of the very few mid-century modern commercial buildings in Wilmington, there is nothing else like this if you think about it. It’s actually quite unique.”

The private cost of Project Grace is around $107 million, and the county cost $20.9 million.