The west bank of the Cape Fear River has remained undeveloped for decades. KFJ Development Group, a consortium of residential, retail, and commercial developers on the southeastern coast, proposed an urban mixed-use project that would change that.
Called the Villages at Battleship Point, the $700 million, 8-acre development on an arrow point of land across the water from downtown Wilmington's northern waterfront, was designed to include 540 condos, 330 apartments, nearly 200,000 square feet of commercial space and a 76,000-square-foot luxury hotel.
This is hardly the first time developers have been proposed for the west bank but ultimately pulled out after encountering major obstacles with roads, utilities and flooding. But KFJ was not deterred by those issues. It billed the project as an opportunity to change Wilmington’s skyline and create a vibrant, self-sufficient waterfront community on both sides of the river.
The land currently zoned heavy industrial and had to be rezoned before the plans could proceed. After that, developers would have to remediate the chemical contamination in the soil and put in a living shoreline to restore the river.
Almost immediately, the planned project set off alarm bells among environmentalists and justice groups. The NAACP, the Coastal Federation, scientists and oceanographers laid out a variety of environmental concerns at the public hearing. These included worries about increased traffic in the 421 corridor, how residents would be kept safe in the event of a natural disaster, changing the hydrology of the Cape Fear River and increased nuisance flooding. The 240-foot maximum building height proposed in the new zone also sparked concerns.
While the developers assured the planning commission that the structures would be built to account for flood risks, opponents were not persuaded. They believed the development posed significant problems for the region’s fragile and already vanishing coastline already under siege from storm surges and rising sea levels.
The objections from the Brunswick County NAACP’s environmental and climate justice committee focused on the disparities in disaster preparedness and protection that could potentially get worse with heavy construction on the floodplain that would shift a disproportionate share of recovery costs of future flooding disasters to some New Hanover County citizens.
“We as taxpayers have to go in and pay to recover the damages that occur after the flood rebuilding infrastructure dealing with public health issues,” said Brayton Willis, chairman of the Brunswick County NAACP’s environmental and climate justice committee. “All of these come off the backs of our taxpayers and, as I said in our letter, those that are less fortunate in our area income wise pay the steepest burden.”
The Civil Rights organization also talked about potential cultural harms to the delicate ecosystems for fish and shellfish in channels along the Gullah Geechee corridor. The corridor was created to recognize, sustain, and celebrate the important contributions made to American culture and history of the Gullah Geechee who settled in the coastal counties. It also assists in identifying and preserving sites, historical data, artifacts, and objects associated with Gullah Geechee people and culture.
While some members of the New Hanover County planning board applauded the developer’s plans, the scale of the development was too big a hurdle to overcome. “Why engineer a problem?” said planning board member Colin Tarrant before the board voted against it.