WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Don’t call it a mall.
That’s what a developer said about Independence Mall last April as he described grand plans for the future of the legacy shopping center, re-dubbing it as the Collection at Independence.
However, apart from retailers closing up shop and a few pieces of heavy machinery and construction outside, it’s unclear exactly where the Collection at Independence stands.
The first demolition and construction plans were submitted to the City of Wilmington for review in June 2018. Those plans were revised with the most recent set submitted in mid-October.
At that time, Independence Mall was not just a shopping center. It was the designated disaster recovery center for New Hanover County after Hurricane Florence. FEMA, the Small Business Administration and others set up shop in empty stores, and the North Carolina Department of Insurance commandeered the parking lot.
Almost six months later, those agencies have moved on, but demolition and construction have yet to commence, and WECT’s calls and emails to Brookfield Properties have not yet been returned.
Because the land is already zoned to allow the development, plans for the Collection at Independence will primarily go through the Technical Review Committee, which ensures that developers obtain the proper stormwater, utility and tree-removal permits.
The plans, however, give an idea of where the project is headed.
Phase one of the Collection at Independence will see the demolition or reconfiguration of almost 300,000 square feet of mall space on the former Sears end of the building.
Sears was vacated last summer, and one by one the other stores in that wing have been emptied as well. Developers said retailers would be relocated if necessary, but some businesses, including the Ruby Tuesday restaurant, have simply closed.
In their place, plans indicate 22 individual commercial spots will be available.
Of those, 13 will be restaurants, ranging in size from seating for 40 diners to 300. Documents indicate these will be “high turn-over, sit down” restaurants — a category that does not include fast-food or coffee shops — but do not indicate what kinds of tenants can be expected, except for one clue: Only one will be open for breakfast.
That doesn’t include the Walk-On’s Bistreaux & Bar, which will be constructed in an additional parking area that fronts Oleander Drive. Plans for that project have been released by the city.
The remainder will be made up of six retail spots, two mercantile spots and one grocery store. The grocery store will be 25,659 square feet, and the largest retail parcel will come in at just over 51,000.
One of the hurdles the Collection project faced was with the way the reconfiguration of the site would affect traffic.
In the plan’s first two iterations, city staff members had concerns about the flow of traffic, number of parking spaces and other transportation items.
However, documents obtained by WECT show the city has determined there may not be major traffic effects at all.
In a letter dated March 13, developers were notified the development is not required to perform a traffic impact analysis.
The main reason cited in the letter is the net reduction in vehicle trips the new development should generate.
City staff evaluate the traffic a development will generate by comparing the square footage of a property to the type of activity that will occur at the property, which then gives them an estimated number of vehicle trips going in and out.
In this case, the re-development is reducing the square-footage of the mall by 12.1 percent, and because the first phase will not include a residential element, city engineers estimate there will be a reduction of 214 evening trips and 342 weekend trips.
With no need for a traffic impact analysis, the Collection at Independence looks to move into the final stages of the plan approval process with the City of Wilmington.
Once the Technical Review Committee is satisfied with the site plans, the city will issue a construction release, which will list the conditions under which the project can break ground. Typically, these include ensuring the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and other agencies have issued any necessary permits, and a 30-day construction notice is posted and advertised.
Then, if the plans regaled by Dinenberg are to be believed, the project will move beyond phase one, and on to the residential and other aspects of the Collection at Independence.