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Townhomes are making a comeback in Wilmington. Here's why that could be a good thing

Spetrino with his townhomes
Kelly Kenoyer
Developer Dave Spetrino stands on 6th Street in Wilmington, in front of his townhome development. Because the new construction is situated next to the bridge over the former railroad, they don't seem much higher than the surrounding single-family homes.

The city of Wilmington is in the midst of changing its land-use codes, and a big part of that shift is aimed at developing more "missing middle housing."

Townhomes, also known as rowhouses, perfectly fit the “missing middle” moniker. The umbrella term is meant to encompass anything from a duplex to a cottage court apartment: Those homes that are denser than the average single-family house, but less overwhelming than a large mid-rise apartment complex. They typically are intended to fit in somewhat seamlessly with existing single-family neighborhoods, in order to increase the number of people who can live in walkable areas.

Townhomes are pretty rare in Wilmington, but they’re starting to make a comeback. The first one ever built in the city is on 8th and McRae, and it's over 100 years old.

Planning Director Glenn Harbeck describes it well: "It is nine townhouse units, two stories, stucco over brick, nice little front porches, picket fences in front.”

These 9 historic townhomes on McRae each have a small porch and yard.
Kelly Kenoyer
These nine historic townhomes on McRae each have a small porch and yard.

Just across the street are single-family homes, but in the same amount of space as two of those, the townhomes provide nine units.

“It's a really good example of missing middle infill housing in our national register Historic District,” Harbeck said.

According to historical documents, this building was the only set of townhouses in Wilmington until the 1980s. But in recent years, as the price of land has skyrocketed in New Hanover County, townhomes are seeing a renaissance. More than 500 have been built in recent years, and they represent 6% of the new housing units built in the past decade.

Developers say the demand has gone up for townhomes because people want to live near downtown but can’t afford a full plot of land: if four housing units are built on one piece of property, that cost is divided between four homeowners instead of one.

Developer Dave Spetrino said land costs weren’t such a problem in the horse and buggy days.

“If you needed cheaper land, you had to go one more city block out," he said. "If you needed even cheaper land, you went two city blocks out, it's no different than today. If you want a lower-cost home, you continue to drive into Leland until you qualify for something."

Spetrino has built a number of townhomes on the northside of downtown, including a set of five buildings around a shared courtyard next to the old railroad tracks. The newly constructed townhomes aren’t quite like the little 2-story stucco homes from the 1910s. They’re 35-feet tall, with numerous balconies and built-in garages, surrounding a shared, manicured lawn. But they’re on the inside of the block, so they don’t stand out from the rest of the neighborhood, despite their height.

Spetrino's townhomes
Kelly Kenoyer
This development is composed of five buildings with four townhomes each. They're three stories, and each includes a garage.

“We used one acre less than one acre of land to yield 20 housing units," Spetrino said. "In a typical neighborhood, you're only yielding three houses and that same acre. So here we benefit from density.”

Townhomes like these have gone for $240,000-$260,000 or so, compared to $330,000 for a similarly sized single-family home in the same neighborhood. The savings come from splitting the cost of a $100,000 lot between two to four homeowners.

Townhomes also benefit from economies of scale. Hiring a contractor to put in two bathrooms costs more per bathroom than hiring them for eight.

But who lives in these townhomes? Spetrino said he doesn’t think many residents of his development on 6th plan to stay forever, even though most of the units are owner-occupied.

Some occupants live there while they build their dream house, while others are young people early in their careers or baby boomers in early retirement. In other words, folks who are trying to scale up out of small apartments, or scale down from big, single-family homes.

Spetrino said his development is a 50-50 split between those age groups. “We found people who were older, and they were saying, 'Look, we still want to be in a walkable area, we're in good shape. We don't see ourselves living here forever. But we certainly see ourselves living here for a long enough time that justifies the purchase.'”

Walt Sheffield fits that description, as a 71-year-old resident of a townhouse on 4th and Brunswick.

“Well, we wanted something urban, something with no yard and something near a lot of activities," he said of his home search. "Once you get to the third floor, it is excellent, because you've got a great view and a lot of light.

The three-story walk-up is a bit of a deterrent, but Walt installed a dumbwaiter to get his groceries up to the kitchen on the third floor, which has large windows on three sides.

“It's an urban view. In the winter, we can see the river with the trees lose, lose their leaves. But otherwise, we're looking at all the way down to First Presbyterian, which is fairly far away, the county building with the blue colors on it, and all along Fourth Street, which is picturesque in an urban kind of way," he said.

He bought his three-story townhome for $270,000 in 2015. For that price range at the time, you’d have to go to Leland or Hamstead for a single-family residence.

Townhomes like Walt's might get a bit easier to build under the proposed land-use code. Harbeck said there are changes to setbacks and parking requirements that should make life a bit easier for those trying to build townhouses and other kinds of missing middle housing.

“We're trying to recognize the fact that, as our city becomes more urban, the lots become smaller," Harbeck said. "But that also makes for a more walkable city and a more transit-oriented city. And when we did the comprehensive plan five years ago, the number one thing that we heard from our residents across every corner of the city, every neighborhood, every economic class, was that we wanted Wilmington to be more walkable and more bikeable.”

Harbeck's townhomes
Kelly Kenoyer
Glenn Harbeck stands in front of the first townhomes to ever be built in Wilmington. They were constructed between 1912 and 1917.

As for where they’ll go, Harbeck figures a townhome would do well to revitalize a more run-down block near downtown. And there are a number of those on the north side now.

“When there is a situation where a block has already become predominantly vacant, or where homes have become in such a condition that they can't be rehabilitated, then certainly something like this is a great answer. Great solution to an otherwise vacant or rundown street, perhaps," he said.

And they may be a way of keeping some of those areas more affordable for people who can’t spend half a million dollars in order to live downtown. Although, luxury housing of any stripe can cost that much in Wilmington’s current housing market. The average home in the area is currently selling for $285,000, up 11% from a year ago.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant new to the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.