Here We Grow: River Road is redefining itself

Here We Grow: River Road is redefining itself

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - WECT's special series on Wilmington's growth continues with a closer look at River Road.

It's a small area, located south of the city of Wilmington and north of Carolina and Kure Beaches, with a big future.

It's seen a lot of changes over the past couple of months and more are on the way.

It's hard to paint a picture of what it will exactly look like since so much is going on right now, but city leaders expect to see a lot of growth.

River Road is back open after the city closed and relocated it more inland to allow for more riverfront development. A new mixed-use development called Riverlights broke ground last week.

While the growth is exciting for some people in the city, new construction along the corridor means new concerns for residents.

Traffic still remains a top concern and priority for both residents and city leaders.

According to a city report on River Road, a lack of adequate planning in the 70s and 80s is partly to blame for some of the congestion problems in that region.

As the road continues to grow up and out, city leaders think some of those concerns will go away with the "new" River Road.

"I don't think River Road has seen the growth yet, but it certainly has laid the foundation for that growth," said Wilmington's Director of Planning, Development and Transportation Glenn Harbeck.

River Road is busy with construction crews, dump trucks and new development. They're all signs of growth, but some residents are concerned the corridor isn't ready for it.

"It's a quality of life issue," said Tom Ericson. "If we are going to build out this empty space, we need to make sure the infrastructure is ready for it before it happens or at least while it's happening."

Ericson owns the Transplanted Garden in Wilmington and he is what some people would consider a transplant himself.

"We've been here since December of 1999," he said.

This spring marks his 17th season in business. Ericson left his home up north and moved to North Carolina to seek a warmer and less stressful way of life. But with tens of thousands of people expected to do the same in the next 20 to 25 years, he's fearful that's all going to change.

"If we start getting so overbuilt that we can't drive around town that kind of defeats the whole purpose of the lifestyle here," he said.

Ericson's business sits along 16th Street in Wilmington, miles away from River Road, but Ericson said he drives it every now and then to get to his home near Monkey Junction.

"I was never really comfortable with that road," he said. "It's a little better now, I traveled it a couple of times to see what it's like but with 27 plus hundred homes, I would think they would have made it four lanes instead of two while they had the chance, while it was closed."

However, the city didn't widen the road while construction was going on at the end of 2015.

River Road is back open following months of work. New blacktop makes for a smoother ride for both cyclists and drivers, not to mention it's aesthetically pleasing on the eyes, but it's still four lanes.

Mike Kozlosky, Executive Director for the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, also known as the WMPO, said the city still plans on making River Road four lanes, but right now, there isn't any funding for the project, which is expected to cost about $2.5 million.

In the meantime, work will continue on thousands of new homes in the region.

It's a much different scene from what many remember about River Road.

"It used to be a two lane backroad bypass, popular with bicyclists, and now with the addition of the River Lights development, it's more like a parkway," said Harbeck.

Harbeck said Riverlights will help attract other businesses along the road. He expects that growth will help reduce traffic congestion in other areas of the city.

"If we can change the language in which we build our city to make things more convenient, the distance from home to work, the distance from home to services, that is the surest way to minimize the growth of our traffic," he said.

But, some see it differently.

River Road was once known and used as an alternate route and as a way to escape traffic in Wilmington.

Now, it's paving way for a new reputation.

"Things are changing fast," said Harbeck. "People want convenience."

It's convenience, he said, that could benefit residents in more than one way.

"The more we can provide services convenient to homes, the better off we will be and that doesn't cost our taxpayers anything."

There is no question River Road and the city of Wilmington are growing.

According to Harbeck, River Road is one of the last few remaining large tracts of land left in the city and in some respects, New Hanover County.

It's up to the city to capitalize on the opportunities and possibilities as people continue to make the Port City their home.

Harbeck said people will be able to see that growth in the landscape.

"I think what you'll see is more homes obviously filling in the spaces," he said. "When you put in homes, you take down some trees, so that'll be a change in the landscape."

Harbeck projects about 60,000 people will move here in the next 20 to 25 years, but he said that number could change.

"A wise old city planner told me years ago if you give a population projection, don't give a year and if you give the year, don't give a projection, so you can't make a mistake," said Harbeck.

Harbeck said he expects to see growth in other areas, outside of the city limits, as well.

Harbeck used Florida as an example. He said development in the 50s and 60s was focused on the beaches, but as more people moved there, development moved in land and we're starting to see that along the coast in North Carolina too.

"We're seeing that in Pender and Brunswick," he said.

Those areas have seen a boost in business development, especially when it comes to retail and grocery stores.

"They're going to move where the rooftops are," he said when talking about what attracts big companies to a region.

A number of people are also curious about the future of Carolina Beach Road.

According to Kozlosky, the widening of Carolina Beach Road from Piner Drive to Sanders Road and an interchange at the intersection of South College Road and Carolina Beach Road are included the MPO's long range transportation plan.

Kozlosky said that work is slated to begin in 2020.

The City of Wilmington was able to identify some of the top concerns from residents in the area in its River Road Small Area Plan. Those include travel safety, accessibility and mobility, protecting the natural environment, traffic needs and aesthetics.

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