Mixed development project planned for Belville, N.C.

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Aug. 3--BELVILLE -- The old downtown on the Brunswick River looks as it did a year ago, when bulldozers had brought down its abandoned Cookery and a motel of questionable activities. Its large stretches of grass remain undeveloped, its aging homes still in place and its streets practically empty, dotted with a handful of small businesses.

But according to Michael White, partner in the downtown Belville redevelopment plan, a lot of work is being done and hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent to prepare that area for change. Boutiques, condos, a marina and a boardwalk will eventually replace that faded landscape off N.C. 133, but it's a long, complicated process until then, White said.

"There's a huge amount of progress being made," but people don't notice it because it's not yet tangible, White said. Preliminary engineering for the project began about a month ago, the developer pointed out.

At a town hall meeting Monday, consultants will present the public some of the project's logistical work: a completed market analysis. The study shows that the revamped downtown -- which White expects to be completed within 10 to 15 years -- "can compete really well with the riverfront" in Wilmington, consultant Erica Champion said.

Belville's mixed development project would allow people to live and shop in a waterfront district without the traffic congestion of the Wilmington area, said Champion, senior associate at Atlanta's RCLCO, which conducted the analysis. People could also find housing more affordable in downtown Belville, Champion said

The study shows it would be possible to build 338 condos, each at 1,070 square feet and going for $330,000; 70 waterview condos at 1,480 square feet and $523,000; and 70 waterfront condos or penthouses, at 1,980 square feet for a pricier $793,000. A hotel could also go in, along with a combined 281,700 square feet of retail and office space, the study says.

The project's forte is its proximity to Wilmington and the ability to fill the void in northern Brunswick County for a consolidated, multi-use waterfront district, according to Champion and the study. Consumer research indicates people 50 and older -- a growing community in Brunswick -- put the strongest emphasis among all age groups on the ability to walk to restaurants, shops and other amenities, which Belville's project would provide, says the study.

The project would also have civic uses such as a new town hall and an amphitheater, Champion said.

Challenges for Belville's project include getting people to move to a less-established location, the lack of surrounding retail where shoppers could spill out from, obstructed visibility from the highway and competition from the four hotels planned for the nearby U.S. 17 business corridor, according to the study.

Also on that highway corridor, the mammoth Brunswick Forest development is building a commercial and entertainment district. White, however, said he doesn't see that development's project as competition because it will have "big-box retail and multiplexes," while Belville's will have a mix of smaller retailers and mom-and-pop stores.

"I think what we're doing and what Brunswick Forest is doing will really complement each other," said White, partner of California-based Urban Smart Growth. The urban redevelopment company has a contract with Belville to work on its downtown for the next 20 years.

The beginning of construction for the project depends on obtaining a key property from the N.C. Department of Transportation and Belville's putting in place the infrastructure the project needs, White said.

The DOT has agreed to give the developer its bridge maintenance facility on the Brunswick River, but that won't happen until the developer designs and builds a comparable structure, White said. The structure's design phase is now halfway finished, and construction of a new facility for the DOT, to be located off U.S. 421 on the Cape Fear River, should begin in four months and be completed by the end of 2009, the developer said.

Then, the developer plans to demolish the DOT facility in Belville and replace it with a marina, boardwalk and riverfront park, White said.

As for the economic feasibility of the project, it's still being analyzed. A study on that is expected to be completed in September, White said.

Belville is looking for grants and considering tax increment financing to pay for its part of the project, Town Manager Tracie Davis said. Under the tax increment plan, the town would provide infrastructure such as sewer, water and road improvements for the developer by taking out bonds.

But rather than raising taxes to pay off the bonds, the town would freeze property taxes at the rate before the downtown project is built, then hope a new downtown would increase the assessed value.

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