My thoughts

by Pat Bradford
Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Last week we ran a front-page photo of multi-family use, high-end apartments built in the Charleston area, specifically Mt. Pleasant, S.C., by Woodfield Investments of Charlotte.  

Representatives from Woodfield Investments who have the Galleria Shopping Center property under contract met with the Wrightsville Beach Board of Aldermen at the end of April to discuss options for the company’s possible redevelopment of the Galleria parcel.

The current owners of the property, Equity One LLC, a leading shopping center developer, gave tenants notice a year ago, requiring them to vacate the low-traffic, two-story shopping center.  Most of the tenants were not happy about being forced to relocate, but in doing so, they dried up some of the availability in other commercial lease locations sitting empty, which was a good thing. 

Incorporated into the town of Wrightsville Beach’s limits in 1985, the 12.2 acres of land is currently zoned C-5, commercial. Lying within the Wrightsville Sound Small Area Plan, it backs up to the city of Wilmington high-end, low-density, single-family residential homes. At the corner of the property on Wrightsville Avenue is the local ABC store, from which the town of Wrightsville Beach received approximately $326,000 in liquor sales tax revenue for FY 2011-2012.  

Across Wrightsville Avenue is the popular Lumina Station retail, office and restaurant complex. To the east is one of the last two mobile home parks in the Wrightsville Sound community. Covered as they all were in a beautiful canopy of live oak trees, one day this land too will go the way of its predecessors to become high-end, single-family homesites. 

Woodfield and its agents will no doubt argue the viability of keeping the Galleria property as retail has come and gone. They will point to the Eastwood Road improvements as having drawn the majority of commercial traffic to that parallel corridor, as a reason for the town to approve whatever new use developers will ask for. 

Equity One suggested the possibility of tearing down the aging shopping center last year. Woodfield has expressed to the town interest in developing Class-A multi-family residential apartments on the site, in keeping with all other projects Woodfield has completed or has in the planning stages in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern United States, which are typically apartments for approximately 300 tenants like the ones pictured last week and on the Woodfield website. It is pretty stuff.  

Representing the sellers of the Galleria, Equity One, are Brian Eckel and Hank Miller of Cape Fear Commercial Real Estate. Purchasing the shopping center more than 20 years ago, Equity One is a real estate investment trust that has properties on both coasts, from Florida to New York, and L.A. to San Francisco. Eckel said he was not going to comment on the terms of the transaction. Eckel and Miller have also listed the Middle of the Island and Olympia restaurant locations for owner Nathan Sanders.

Representing Woodfield as the buyer of the site is the attorney firm of Shanklin and Nichols, who certainly understand the nuances of appearing before Wrightsville’s elected officials with a zoning application.  

To be eligible to build a residential structure on the site, the applicant would need to craft or tailor a text amendment to allow mixed use or residential use. Or it could apply for outright rezoning to another type of commercial use or low-density residential housing or even single-family homes.

To develop a mixed-use facility combining residential and commercial would require a rezoning to C-1, C-2 or C-3. Either option would have to win approval of the Wrightsville Beach Planning Board and the Board of Aldermen. The process, planning and zoning’s Eryn Moller said, would take no longer than two to three months. 

“Before they even make a decision, what I think would be good is for them to get some kind of public input to see what people think about that idea,” Wrightsville Beach Mayor David Cignotti has said. 

A multi-family development could burden the town and its resources in several ways: first, the obvious, with approximately 300 apartment units, the potential student enrolment at the already overcrowded and outdated Wrightsville Beach School would be significant. An additional factor is water and sewer service. Would the new development be serviced by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority or the already taxed water and sewer resources of the town, particularly during the summer months when the town teeters at capacity? It’s basically shared. Steve Dellies, of the Wrightsville Beach Public Works Department, says, “Everything west of the bridge is town water and CFPUA sewer.”

Then too, the impact to the police department would be a factor. Up to 300 apartments would necessitate residential patrols to be increased in that area, pulling officers off the beach.  

How residents of Wrightsville Sound will react is an unknown, but some have been very vocal in opposition to aspects of The Sidbury mixed-use project on the 4.5-acre site of the former Babies Hospital proposed by Jacksonville-based Bailey & Associates. Pending the city of Wilmington’s approval, three buildings will include up to 100 units, and 15,000-square feet of ground-level retail and office space. The height of the buildings has been a contentious issue for neighboring residents.

How 300 high-end apartments would fit into the Wrightsville Sound Small Area Plan, which supports a mix of commercial and residential, is unknown, as is the impact on the Wrightsville Avenue Plan and the Wrightsville Beach Transportation Plan, among others.

Seeing 20-single family high-end homes on half-acre lots with amenities would be lovely, but if that is not possible, this developer designs what appear to be quality apartments.  Keeping retail on the ground floor would be welcome. 

Just a few miles to the west, the newly built apartments at Autumn Hall are 80-percent leased, Brian Eckel said this week. Chris Bailey has been quoted as saying he has had “a lot of interest in the retail space” in The Sidbury proposed development and yet the Galleria remained half empty following the departure of anchor tenants, Rite Aid and Harris Teeter.

Regardless, all roads lead to the elected body of a town that traditionally votes against any change. 

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