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Two bids for city-owned Castle Street property; one would require Wilmington to restart sale process

Next week, Wilmington City Council will consider selling the former bus depot on Castle Street. On paper, it’s an easy choice: as part of the sealed-bid process, the city has to accept the highest offer, which came from developer David Spetrino — or start over. Gerard Newkirk, co-founder of Wilmington-based non-profit Genesis Block, hopes the city will reconsider the latter option.

For over 15 years, the City of Wilmington tried to find a way to donate its property on Castle Street to a mission-based non-profit but eventually abandoned that plan and opened the land up to a sealed-bid sale — a process that puts the property on the free market and sells it to the highest bidder.

The process has been frustrating for community advocates who have long hoped the 1.5-acre property at 1110 Castle Street would end up in the hands of a local non-profit. Back in 2007, the city agreed to donate the land to the Wilmington Southside Community Development Corporation — on the condition that the nonprofit come up with a development plan. Over ten years later, that still hadn’t happened, and the city decided to try again with a different partner.

There were several options — including a short-lived flash of interest from a potential non-profit spinoff of Tru Colors that never really came together. A more well-developed plan that included Habitat for Humanity and the Cape Fear Land Trust ultimately fell apart, and the city put the property up for sealed bids (meaning potential buyers submitted proposals without knowing how much other interested parties have offered).

The city got two bids. PBW Development, LLC offered $867,500. Genesis Block bid $10,000.

As the city’s economic development director Aubrey Parsley told council during arecent agenda review meeting, council members “have to take the highest [bid] or reject them all, those are the two options.”

The high bid

Developer Dave Spetrino said he would focus on infill development, with some commercial but mostly residential construction, with a focus on affordability.

Spetrino noted this is not subsidized housing — “we’re not a non-profit, we are capitalists," he said — but that he plans to keep costs for residents down by eschewing higher-end amenities.

“We’re not building resort-style pools and offering valet services and ‘wash your dog here,’ he said. “There’s no chef who comes and cooks dinner on Thursday. A lot of our residents really just need a place to stay and not have to worry about if rent's gonna get jacked up.”

Spetrino said his target demographic would be around 80-100% AMI — that’s the area median income, a number that fluctuates depending on how wide a geographic net you cast but is somewhere around $62,000 a year in New Hanover County.

While Spetrino said his firm can’t invest in a detailed development plan until the purchase has been approved by the city, he does have some ideas for the broad strokes. That includes denser mixed-use development with commercial and residential along Castle Street and less-dense residential development that ‘transitions’ into the neighborhood along South 11th and 12th streets — which will “likely” be townhomes, Spetrino said.

Restarting the process

Girard Newkirk’s $10,000 offer wasn’t really a plausible contender in the bid process — but he hopes it will get the conversation started. Newkirk has had an interest in the property for some time, and hopes to turn it into what he calls the Genesis Innovation Neighborhood.

Newkirk describes the idea as a “cluster of resources” that “serves not only as a real estate solution but also an economic development solution.”

“What we envision is having workforce housing, having access to incubators, accelerators, live-work-play environment, so that the resources are extended to the entire community,” Newkirk said.

As with his work, along with his wife Tracey, with Genesis Block, the proposal for the Castle Street property would have a focus on providing infrastructure to help minority entrepreneurs build up their small businesses.

Newkirk said he hopes to bring some of the major regional stakeholders that he’s worked with through Genesis Block to the Castle Street project, including Cape Fear Community College, UNCW, and the New Hanover Community Endowment.

But, to pursue this plan, Wilmington City Council would have to reject Spetrino’s high bid and go back to the drawing board for a land donation to Genesis Block as a mission-driven nonprofit.

Asked if he’d spoken with council members to see if they’re receptive to the plan, Newkirk said, “No, I haven't really checked the fly paper to see what's sticking, yet. I'm going to trust it. You know, we put it out there. We have a lot of support in the community.”

Development and gentrification

Gentrification is often a concern when new development comes to historically Black neighborhoods. Spetrino, who has built hundreds of homes, including many in Wilmington’s Northside, acknowledged that he’s been called a gentrifier in the past but defended his projects.

“I think we have been recognized and sometimes even maligned as gentrifying neighborhoods, but we've never displaced anyone. We get called colonizers. But we‘ve never bought up somebody’s home and made them move out, and then torn down their home, and put an apartment on top. And while some of our investments have caused the neighborhood as a whole, to rise in value, that also means that the residents who were there have also benefited from that growth,” Spetrino said.

He added that while the City of Wilmington is nearly out of developable space the Castle Street property and the surrounding blocks haven’t seen the same kind of investment that nearby areas like the Cargo District and the Castle Street arts district have. And, Spetrino noted, the current site isn’t adding to the city’s tax base or its supply of housing stock.

Newkirk also said that the ‘middle’ of Castle Street hadn’t seen economic investment. He praised the Cargo District, saying, “we’re not going to call it gentrification, what’s happening at the Cargo District … which is done wonderfully.”

But he did note area around the former bus station was predominantly marginalized people — and he wanted a project that would help those residents.

“Well, for me personally, you know, I'm an 80s baby, so I remember when historically Castle Street was a Black Wall Street for Wilmington, for the brothers and sisters in Wilmington. And so a lot of my personal attachment to this I think that it not only symbolically, but also its proximity Williston and all these other things, it fits to be a Mecca for economic development,” Newkirk said.

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.