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Project Grace is back on the table

Mike Brown (at podium) and Brian Eckle (to his right) from Cape Fear Commercial address New Hanover County Commissioners at their March 30 agenda meeting.
Benjamin Schachtman
Mike Brown (at podium) and Brian Eckel (to his right) from Cape Fear Commercial address New Hanover County Commissioners at their March 30 agenda meeting.

The on-again, off-again plan to redevelop the downtown Wilmington block that's currently home to the main library has been around for almost six years. The latest iteration addresses the key concern that led the state to block the project last year.

Project Grace has a new development team, who addressed county commissioners at yesterday’s agenda meeting.

For the last five months, Developer Brian Eckel, of Cape Fear Commercial, along with a team that includes LS3P and Monteith, have been reviewing the existing plans left over from the abortive attempt by Zimmer Development to get the project off the ground.

Related: Project Grace sputters out

Eckel told commissioners his team worked for several months to address concerns from the Local Government Commission. That’s the state agency that previously shot down Project Grace over concerns with its financing structure, which included roughly $12 million in extra payments to Zimmer to handle financing — a cost the county argued, unsuccessfully, was worth it because it would guarantee private development (and tax revenue) on privately-owned side of the block.

While Eckel said many, including the Zimmer family, told him he "needed to have his head examined" for taking on the historically thorny project, he said nevertheless "we're all in on this project, we're excited about it."

The new plan is to build a new downtown library and museum for a set cost, instead of the lease-to-own plan that the state previously objected to. Even though the market has shifted notably since last year, the county could still use its AAA bond rating to borrow at rates significantly lower than those involved in the lease-to-own financing plan, County Manager Chris Coudriet noted.

Eckel and his team said that they had met with dozens of community organizations and stakeholders. Notably, that included Diana Hill and the Save Our Main Library organization, which was vocally opposed to Project Grace and pushed instead for an adaptive reuse project.

Eckel said his team did look at that option, which would involve stripping the building down to its foundations and rebuilding the exterior, and said there was no financially viable way to approach it. He also noted the problem of having to relocate the library services for up to 18 months during the process.

Instead, Eckel said his team stuck with the original plan, which involves building the new library and museum on the north side of the block. Once complete, the existing library would be demolished and replaced with private development.

Eckel said his team shaved $4 million off the construction cost, changes he said he doubted most visitors would notice. Asked by commissioners where these savings came from, Eckel's team said it was largely from structural elements — but also from a wide variety of small tweaks.

The deal proposes to hold the cost at around $60 million — a number Eckel said was a placeholder that he expected to maintain or even revise down before a final proposal. The deal also offers a minimum of $3.5 million for the southern half of the block.

A development agreement with the county would define what could and could not be built on the private side of the project. Eckel said his team was pushing hard to include a grocery store, commercial, and possibly residential units. While the latter is not a foregone conclusion, Eckel did say he would commit to 5% workforce housing. In response, Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, Jr. joked, "25% — that's pretty good!"

Eckel sketched out a timeline, with a vote to move forward during the commissioners' May 1 meeting. With the green light, the plan would then go to the state in July and, if approved, construction would start in the fall with a 2025 completion date. After completion, Eckel said he would hold the private development to a 24-month timeline.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.