Skip to Main Content

Wilmington’s Vision 

Attracting Private Investment While Preserving History

(The following feature, produced by the staff of the University of North Carolina School of Government, looks at one of the municipal economic development projects developed in conjunction with the SOG’s Development Finance Initiative.)

Wilmington is one of North Carolina’s largest and fastest growing cities and a popular tourist destination. Its downtown area is an economic and social hub for the region. With a nearly 300-block historic district, the area includes cobblestone streets with ancient trees and lovingly restored historic homes, restaurants, shops, music and art venues, hotels, a river walk, a college campus, and a convention center.

However, the Water Street Parking Deck is an aging public parking facility prominently located in the city’s historic downtown on the Cape Fear riverfront. The two-story structure was built in the 1960s and sits on 1.2 acres along Water Street overlooking the Cape Fear River. Though it is nearing functional obsolescence, the deck serves as primary public parking for tourists and locals alike. Surrounded by vibrant retail and entertainment businesses, the parking deck is an eyesore.

City officials long believed that a parking structure alone was not the best use for the high-profile location. They envisioned a future for the site that would spur additional private investment while respecting the historic fabric of the surrounding environment.

In 2013, city officials hired the School of Government’s Development Finance Initiative (DFI) to conduct a pre-development process for the property.

The Challenge
Southern City readers will understand that what city officials hoped would be a straightforward redevelopment project was much more complicated. In the last two decades, Wilmington released two different Requests for Proposals that received no responses from the private sector. Numerous factors made consideration of development particularly challenging. The property was constrained by the physical limitations of a site surrounded by existing structures and the necessity to provide generous space for public parking. There was public discord over the use and density of the site, as well as a lack of a shared vision among political leadership.

Meanwhile, owners of other valuable downtown properties had put redevelopment on hold until the parking deck could be refurbished.

Roger Johnson, the City of Wilmington’s special assistant to the city manager for economic development, has been a central participant in the search for a viable solution to the Water Street Parking Deck. "Our decision to hire DFI for this project," he said, "was greatly influenced by its association with the School of Government and the broad expertise they bring to the table."

The Project
The city asked DFI to define an economically feasible redevelopment project for the parking deck that would be attractive to the private sector while also serving varied–and sometimes competing–public interests.

DFI led a 12-month pre-development process that guided the city to key decision points about the project, the public investment, the structure of the public-private partnership, and selection of a private-sector partner. This iterative process included a market analysis, site analysis, public stakeholder engagement, and financial feasibility modeling.

The market analysis explored what types of uses the downtown market could support–residential, retail, office, hotel, and parking. DFI directed an architecture firm to conduct a site analysis that would determine the configuration and massing of these potential redevelopment uses.

DFI also worked with Allen Davis, an urban designer in the Wilmington’s Planning, Development, and Transportation Department, to make sure the parking deck project would integrate seamlessly into its surroundings. The new vision would have to relate to adjacent buildings and public spaces. A focal point included an elevated walkway between the redevelopment site and several existing businesses on Front Street.

Public engagement took on several forms–one-on-one meetings, an online survey, public forums, and small group stakeholder meetings. Finally, DFI performed a financial feasibility analysis of the proposed redevelopment program, informed by the site and market analyses and stakeholder engagement. The final concept was endorsed by Wilmington officials.

The Outcome
The City of Wilmington now has a plan to transform the parking deck into a mixed-use project that will match and even rival other developments on the waterfront. DFI used this plan to actively recruit qualified private developers to the project. The city received proposals from eight development teams from across the Southeast and selected a skilled development partner with a successful track record in mixed-use projects in urban cores.

Johnson described the parking deck and the possibility of additional business as having the potential to "transform our urban core in a powerful manner and result in large scale capital projects that will improve our community overall."