Deep Dive: The challenges and concerns facing the $500-million Battleship Point project
The project would radically change the development trajectory of the Cape Fear River’s western bank, but it faces logistical and legal land-use challenges — and concerns from the community.
Since at least 2016, New Hanover County has wanted the western riverbank to mirror downtown Wilmington’s urban layout. Parts of the area are already zoned for mixed-use development — and a maximum height of 240 feet for buildings with structured parking — but not Point Peter, the stretch of land north of Eagles Island and across from Wilmington’s marina and Convention Center.
To build the project they want on the point, developers will need a rezoning — in fact, a new zoning classification altogether. After initially facing a roadblock with New Hanover County Commissioners, developers considered a complicated annexation by the Town of Leland. That would allow Leland to stretch its corporate limits across the county line from Brunswick to New Hanover and apply a new municipal zoning on the land. But for the time being, developers have withdrawn that request, and are waiting on commissioners to decide how they want to proceed — and how they want the western bank to look.
But if commissioners do greenlight some version of the project, there are still challenges.
The land provides scenic views of downtown Wilmington, the Battleship U.S.S. North Carolina, and Cape Fear River — but it’s also flood-prone, even on sunny days, a major bone of contention for opponents of the project. Critics in the NAACP have also objected to building on the land, given its Gullah Geechee heritage and some have suggested that, given its location, it could exacerbate what they say are existing inequities in disaster response. And, of course, as with any development project, there are concerns about traffic.
Why the west bank?
Given these issues, the first question many would ask the developers is, why build here?
Development partners Jim Lea — who some will know as one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the high profile civil case against New Hanover County Schools — and Kirk Pugh said they’re both longtime Wilmington-area residents, and both lamented the sight of the marine salvage yard.
“I guess, to me, driving over that bridge the last 42 years, it's always sort of stuck in my craw, that it looks just so terrible. And it's gotten worse and worse and worse over the years. And I think it's a real eyesore. And beyond that, what's going on over there has killed the waterfront,” Lea said, pointing to the environmental ill-effects of rusting metal and industrial debris (400 tons of which developers have already removed from the site).
Pugh said he hoped if their project moves forward that the owners of neighboring land will be able to follow suit.
“The entire west bank of the river between the two bridges is what's called a Brownfield site. So it's all contaminated and has to be remediated. Our goal — the other property owners on that side of the river, our neighbors over there all very much, are very hopeful that this will gain some traction, so that it would allow them then to clean up their land and, and hopefully do something over there other than what's currently being done,” Pugh said.
Why so tall?
The height of Battleship Point’s proposed buildings — 240 feet tall, 47 feet taller than the tallest building in Wilmington, the PPD offices — has been a bone of contention.
Part of the reason for the proposed height is brute economics. While there are plenty of concerns about building on flood-prone land (more on that, later), for developers a concern is that the area will be difficult and expensive to build on.
During a recent work session concerning the western bank, New Hanover County Chair Julia-Olsen Boseman asked County Engineer Jim Iannucci: “Can the site be built on, Jim?”
He responded: “Ma’am, anything can be built on,” but an important caveat might have been – with enough funding.
No small part of the $500-million investment that will be needed to build Battleship Point will come from securing the structure. The approach isn’t much different than securing a bridge, with concrete pilings going down dozens of feet to bedrock. In short, it’s architecturally possible but expensive.
To get a return on that investment, developers are planning luxury units — not a surprise — but they also need a lot of those units. Since sprawl isn’t an option, or what’s expected of urban development, developers need to go vertical.
There have been many complaints about what this would do to the view of and from Wilmington, including some saying the towers aren't in keeping with the general aesthetics of Wilmington, and some of the more hyperbolic ‘it will block out the sun’ variety. But it’s worth noting the 240-foot height is already contemplated for nearby parcels by the county's land-use code. In fact, that’s where Pugh and Lea said their team got the number from.
New Hanover County’s Riverfront Mixed-Use (RFMU), an elective district for land between the Isabelle Holmes and Cape Fear Memorial bridges, allows 240-foot maximum heights for buildings that include 60 feet of structured parking and also dedicate a certain percentage of private land for public use. According to Lea, that structured parking — in addition to a “sacrificial first floor” to absorb the frequent flooding on the land — means the first habitable floor will be nearly fifty feet above the mean high waterline.
However, there are other regulations on the western bank, including an ‘overlay’ that extends height regulations for buildings directly across the river from downtown Wilmington historic districts that would cap structures at 75 feet.
At 75 feet, the project would probably be financially untenable, but 240 feet seems to have bothered commissioners. Pugh and Lea said the county hasn’t come back to them with a target number yet — but that number, if and when the county agrees on one, is likely to make the difference.
The western bank of the Cape Fear River has a low sloping grade compared to the steeper incline of the Wilmington side of the river. That’s the reason, historically, the eastern bank saw urban development while the western bank was the site of rice farming and shipyards.
Related: Facing increasing flooding, Corps of Engineers could end century-old presence on Eagles Island
The region floods often and experts say over the last twenty years it has flooded with greater frequency, even without taking into account stronger tropical storms and hurricanes. In short, the flooding problem is bad and getting worse. Recently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has maintained operations on nearby Eagles Island for decades, began considering leaving the area due to frequent flooding. Unlike private developers, the Corps of Engineers does not have the capital necessary to, for example, elevate an entire property to ten feet above flood levels.
But it remains an open question how exactly building in the floodplain will impact flooding elsewhere — something that a hydrological study would help answer. To date, neither the developers nor the county has performed such a study to look at the specific impacts of Battleship Point’s footprint.
Still, some have presented the development as a simple example of displacement — think dropping a cinderblock in a bathtub. But Pugh says the project is designed to be more like a ‘living coastline’ and less like the 'seawall' hardening used on parts of the Wilmington downtown. Pugh says this will allow water to move around the development instead of blocking the flow of water completely, forcing it to surge elsewhere.
Another flood-related concern is that, eventually, the infrastructure needed to develop the western bank — that is, roads, water and sewer, etc. — would face damage from flooding and erosion and that would cost taxpayer money. Brayton Willis, the chairman of the environmental and climate justice committee for the Brunswick County branch of the NAACP, raised this issue at the beginning of the year during a protest of the project, citing the example of New Orleans.
His concerns were later echoed in a letter objecting to the Battleship Point project in February, signed by Brunswick County NAACP President Carl Parker and then-New Hanover County NAACP President, now North Carolina NAACP president, Deborah Dicks Maxwell (you can find the full letter, below).
“There is ample documentation, both locally and nationally, that construction in floodplains, such as being proposed by this project, will dramatically increase expenditure of public tax money for costly flood control projects, flood damage recovery, post-disaster cleanup, water, sewer, gas mains, stormwater, streets, transportation infrastructure repair and replacements, and floodplain restoration. And tragically, the costs borne by the taxpayers to recover from these ever-increasing disasters impact minorities and low-income residents the hardest,” the letter read in part.
Pugh said that the site plan was designed to be highly resilient to flooding. Speaking specifically about road damage, he noted that in order to secure approval from the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO) and the NCDOT, developers will have the financial responsibility of raising their road infrastructure to the height of nearby highway 421. Pugh said damage to roads from flooding wasn’t a concern for developers based on 421’s infrequent flooding.
And when it comes to traffic — and you might say, the flood of vehicles already pouring over the region's bridges from Brunswick County to Wilmington daily — Pugh said both WMPO and NCDOT were okay with their access plan, which would allow drivers to get into and out of the development from both northbound and southbound sides of 421. The concern was less about volume coming from the development, but ensuring EMS and other services had access, Pugh said.
Another concern voiced by the NAACP is development in the Gullah Geechee Corridor, a National Heritage area recognized by Congress in 2006.
"The Gullah Geechee people are the descendants of West and Central Africans who were enslaved and bought to the lower Atlantic states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia to work on the coastal rice, Sea Island cotton and indigo plantations. Because their enslavement was on isolated coastal plantations, sea and barrier islands, they were able to retain many of their indigenous African traditions. These traditions are reflected in their foodways, arts and crafts, and spiritual traditions. They also created a new language, Gullah, a creole language spoken nowhere else in the world," according to the National Park Service.
While the corridor contains many already developed areas, the New Hanover and Brunswick NAACP branches argued in their February letter that developers needed to start recognizing the historical significance of the land they were building on.
NAACP leaders wrote: “[t]he Peter’s Point location, as well as the adjacent Eagles Island area, is well documented as having significant historical and cultural heritage value. There is an exceptional opportunity to preserve, protect and celebrate the history, culture, and heritage of our people’s connection to the Lower Cape Fear River and Peter’s Point is a great place to begin that celebration for New Hanover County,”
Pugh said he was familiar with the corridor and that, while he was not aware of any major historical sites on the western bank, developers will conduct an archaeological survey of the site of the Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) permit for the project as required by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
“Part of the CAMA major permitting process is that we have an archeological survey done, which would discover any items of historical significance, physically and culturally. And it's always been our plan, provided that we have the opportunity to build this darn thing to memorialize any historical or cultural points of interest,” Pugh said.
Emergency response equity
Another concern put forward by some critics is that in the event of a natural disaster — most likely a hurricane — that the unique geographic challenges of Battleship Point’s location could tax local emergency responders at the expense of low-income and minority residents.
“My understanding [of the concern] is that in the event of a catastrophic event, where county resources are going to be required to rescue people, county resources will be depleted thereby preventing them from being used for the poor black and brown population,” Pugh said.
Pugh and Lea said they had faith in the county to provide services to all residents — and Lea added that the county would have an added tax revenue (he ballparked $5.5 million annually) to support those services.
This is, to be fair, also a potential critique of the county’s emergency response team – implying that the county would fail to plan for a rescue at Battleship Point or through some other failing to allow its response to be inequitable.
Asked about that charge, the county issued a statement: New Hanover County is committed to working with all of our stakeholders to provide the necessary resources to support our citizens and visitors in an emergency situation. Our dedicated Emergency Management professionals continue to craft and revise flexible plans that meet the growing needs of our county, when and if such an event were to occur.
New Hanover County commissioners haven't set a hard date to determine if they'll change the land-use code for the western bank — and what it could like like if they did. But Battleship Point's developers are optimistic that the merits of their project will
win over commissioners and they won't need to turn to Leland.
"It was originally scheduled to be taken up, but since the Planning Board approval, we've withdrawn from the agenda our request for the voluntary annexation and the text amendment and zoning change simply because, you know, we started on this road with New Hanover County, we realize New Hanover County is working towards a goal — we don't know what the goal is yet. And before we make such a dramatic move, we'd kind of like to see how New Hanover County plays out," Pugh said.
Pugh said annexation isn't something they'd rule out, however. There is a possible future in which the tallest building in New Hanover County is in ... Leland.