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As Project Grace vote approaches, library and museum boards weigh in

Project Grace is New Hanover County’s redevelopment project for the downtown library block. Ahead of a vote by county commissioners, representatives of the Cape Fear Museum and the New Hanover County Library are weighing in on changes they’d like to see to the current plan.

Late last week, the chairs of advisory boards for the museum and library both sent letters to the board of commissioners; the chairs have laid out a number of key changes and additions they’d like to see to the Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU, between the county and the Zimmer Development Company.

Jan Brewington, who chairs the library board, says they’re focused on four main items:

“We’re very serious about space, the library continuing to operate downtown, a representative from the board participating in the team, and then some version of public green space. We're very serious about just those four things.”

Museum board chair Donna Pope says she shares the library’s space concerns, saying around 40,000 additional square feet are needed, some of which could be off-site. 

Part of that would be shared on-site space for an auditorium, meeting space, and other facilities. Pope says this was included in an earlier space study, but is missing from the current plans.

“That was what we heard the first time around … that it was around 8,000 square feet. And then there's an additional 16,000 [sq. ft.] or so for the museum and 17,000 [sq. ft.] or so for the library that we believe we need, in addition to what's in the MOU or the memorandum of understanding...There's a lot of space issues that need to be addressed.”

Pope is also asking the county to consider keeping the historic armory building, which currently houses the Cape Fear Museum. In part, the building could help supply needed square footage, but Pope says the building and adjacent park are also important in and of themselves.

“It's a great building. It's historic in its own right, it was built in the 1930s by the WPA ... it's an interesting building, the adaptive use of it has been great … we have museum Park, it's important to keep those public places.” 

 

Likewise, Brewington is asking the county to preserve some version of Story Park -- currently in the front of the library entrance -- as well as keeping downtown library services accessible during construction. That’s another part of the initial Project Grace plan that has since changed.

“It seems that the new design would not be, it wouldn't be appropriate or it wouldn't be able to be open because that part would be torn down for the new design. But we're gonna ask for library space wherever they can find it for us downtown in a walkable area.”

Lastly, Pope says both boards are asking for a seat at the table as the project moves forward. 

“We want representation in the planning process. We want staff representation. And we want a board member who's sitting there, because we can ask the hard questions that staff can't.” 

In a response to Pope and Brewington, New Hanover County Chief Strategy Officer Jennifer Rigby wrote:

 

“We are starting fresh with a new process that includes a new design team and we would like to include each of your boards in this process if the Board of Commissioners votes on March 15 to move forward … If our Board of Commissioners approves this MOU, we will begin the planning process immediately and we want you to be included and engaged in this process. We plan to bring you into this process early on and often, because we value your boards’ perspectives and the input you can provide for this project.”

However, it’s worth noting that the MOU includes specific agreements about the square footage of the new museum and library spaces -- and it’s not clear how easy it would be to change those numbers after an agreement is signed.

County Commissioners are expected to vote on that MOU on March 15, following a public hearing.

Below: Letters to New Hanover County Commissioners from Donna Pope and Jan Brewington, on behalf of the Cape Fear Museum Advisory Board and New Hanover County Public Library Board, respectively.

 
CFM Advisory Project Grace by Ben Schachtman on Scribd

Letter to Commissioners by Ben Schachtman on Scribd