The Wilmington City Council on Tuesday approved a rezoning request for an 11.9 acre lot on Airlie Road that paves the way for the construction of a 57-unit mixed use development that brought out scores of neighbors in opposition.
After a nearly two-hour public hearing, the city council voted 6-1 to approve the project, with only council member Kevin O’Grady opposing.
The site, located at 315 Airlie Road, across the street from Airlie Gardens and south of the former Galleria shopping center, would feature nine homes fronting the street deemed a North Carolina “Scenic Byway.” It’s attracted opposition from neighbors, many of whom argued it would bring too much traffic and density to the area, while potentially damaging water and environmental quality.
In order to be able to build the project, the developers — Charlotte-based developers State Street Companies — asked the city to approve a zoning change from residential R-15 to “urban mixed-use,” which pairs residential and commercial development.
Jeff Kentner, State Street Company president, said the $150 million project would have a “huge” economic impact on the city.
The rezoning was supported by the city’s planning staff and approved by the Wilmington Planning Commission on Feb. 1. The developers have said the project would be exclusively residential, but it would allow connectivity with a proposed new development at the Galleria shopping center.
During a public hearing, the council members made few comments addressing concerns raised by neighbors, instead mainly discussing a proposed gate that would separate the two developments. The gate would only allow residents to drive between the two developments, eliminating the potential of “cut-through” traffic between Wrightsville Avenue and Airlie Road. The gate restrictions were added since the project went before the planning commission in February.
City planning director Glenn Harbeck said there were concerns about the gate, since the city’s comprehensive development plan, adopted in June 2016, encourage connectivity. However, he said that he didn’t believe there would be demand from visitors to the Galleria shopping center site to use the cut-through to get to Airlie Road, as most would likely use the more-convenient Wrightsville Avenue exit to get to Wrightsville Beach.
“I know the gate goes against plan, but I see it as a concession by the developer,” said council member Charles Rivenbark. “I see the gate being an issue down the road.”
O’Grady offered that while connectivity is stressed in the comprehensive plan, that it wasn’t necessarily appreciated by the neighbors.
“I don’t know if the project is going to generate that kind of traffic, but if you open the gate up, you run the risk that traffic is going to go through there,” O’Grady said. “Most neighborhoods don’t want connectivity. Once it’s built, I don’t think the neighbors are going to want that kind of traffic coming through the neighborhood.”
O’Grady also said that while staff said the project may comply with the comprehensive plan, it didn’t meet the goals of the Wrightsville Sound Small Area Plan.
“I know you think the comprehensive plan takes precedent,” O’Grady said to Harbeck. “But the other plans still matter.”
However, most of the neighbors that spoke at the meeting said they were more concerned about how the project would impact the character of Airlie Road. Many cited traffic concerns, however, the city’s planning staff told the city council that it didn’t believe the project was big enough to generate serious traffic issues.
Others said that the project didn’t fit the Wrightsville Sound Small Area Plan, a plan adopted by the council in 2011 to manage development in the area. One speaker, Steven Fawcett, said the plan’s goal was to protect existing wetlands, preserve existing natural areas, effectively manage stormwater runoff and preserve open vistas and views.
“I don’t see any of those things in this proposal,” Fawcett said. “The plan says developments must maintain the character of Wrightsville Sound. This development clearly does not.”
Fawcett also echoed other speakers in concerns about stormwater runoff.
“The impervious surfaces are unacceptable,” he said. “The capacity will be exceeded, just wait for the next storm season.”
However, Kentner said the project met all of the conditions of the city’s comprehensive plan, especially the goal of creating walkable developments, while also preserving the character of Airlie Road. He said that the 27 “heritage trees” on the property would be preserved, while also adding 125 new tree plantings.
He said that the company has held the property for three years, but waited until the city developed the comprehensive plan before developing a proposal.
“This was developed in in strict accordance with the comprehensive plan,” Kentner said. “It’s the first true mixed-use development in Wilmington. In every sense of the word, this will be a landmark development.”