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Greenville experiencing busy downtown development

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By Matthew Clark
Published Feb. 17, 2016

To hear Mary Douglas Hirsch tell it, the city of Greenville continues to get more and more inquiries about people and businesses wanting to locate in the downtown area.

In all, there are 25 different projects, ranging from commercial to multifamily residential, either in the midst of construction or planned for the immediate future within the boundaries of downtown Greenville.

Construction crews continue work on the 30,000-square-foot Erwin Penland office building in downtown Greenville. The project is one of 25 different projects either underway or planned for the downtown area. (Photo by Bill Poovey)
Construction crews continue work on the 125,000-square-foot Erwin Penland office building in downtown Greenville. The project is one of 25 different projects either underway or planned for the downtown area. (Photo by Bill Poovey)
“We’re busier than we have ever been at the city,” said Hirsch, the city’s downtown manager in the economic development office. “We’ve had a string of projects, but they were more spread out from 2005 to 2012.”

Now, the city is experiencing a boom of projects, some as large as the new 125,000-square-foot Erwin Penland office building or the 4.3-acre Camperdown site, where construction of a 40,000-square-foot office building is set to begin, along with another office building an AC Hotel by Marriott.

Then there are others slightly smaller, such as 121 Rhett Condominiums, a multifamily development planned for 36 condos overlooking downtown, and District West Apartments, another multifamily development located west of downtown on the Reedy River.

After a recent visit to the South End district of Charlotte, Hirsch and other city officials said Greenville needed to make some adjustments. She said the intent of the visit was to see what the best practices were for an ever growing section of Charlotte. What became of the visit was a need to go back to the drawing board when it came to downtown development.

“We decided that we needed to take a look at our design guidelines for downtown and get a consultant and see what we wanted the city to look like,” Hirsch said.

Those guidelines, she said, haven’t been updated since 2000 and — taking into account the struggle in balancing mixed use, commercial and multifamily developments — the trip was an eye-opener for city officials.

“We looked at a lot of office projects there, and we learned that retail-restaurants are great with the residential, but you still need people working in the downtown area,” Hirsch said. “After we came out of the recession, there was financing for multifamily developments. Now, you are seeing multifamily mixing with mixed use.”

She said the city has had a strategy since the 1970s and has set aside money to help with downtown development. Because there was money available for multifamily developments, the city worked to sell property it owned in the late 90s and early 2000s for those kinds of developments.

Now, the cycle has to balance, and that means looking for more mixed-use developments that include condos, apartments and ground-floor retail in an effort to bring more people to work in the downtown area.

Another problem facing downtown development is the price to live downtown. Because land in a central business district sells for a premium, Hirsch said it is a concern of city officials that the city not be priced out of getting new tenants to downtown housing.

“When one area gets a little out of balance, we have to work and find a way to assist with that,” Hirsch said. “We are hiring an affordable housing expert to develop an affordable housing strategy, but until that happens, we just have to talk to developers and work with them because we have a want to have different price points.”

If those issues weren’t enough, because everyone is looking for downtown space, the market is getting tighter and tighter in Greenville. In its office study for the fourth quarter of 2015, CBRE reported vacancies in downtown dropped to a record-low 12.2% with total availability of space at 16%.

“In 2015, the office market absorbed 350,000 square feet of space, and the departure of CertusBank was more than offset by growth related to information technology and technology distribution centers,” said Brian Reed, CBRE research manager.

The result of less space has meant record-high asking rates. According to CBRE, the average asking rate per square foot of office space in downtown Greenville has risen to $21.77, compared with an average of $16.30 for suburban Greenville and suburban Spartanburg.

But, one of the biggest questions for downtown Greenville is will there be a point when the development in the central business district has to stop because there is nowhere else to build?

“We are hearing from people that same question, but this is kind of new for Greenville,” Hirsch said. “The pace we are growing is new, and these are all really good discussions to have.”

However, she said there is no intention on the city’s part to stop looking at new development, in the downtown area, as well as suburban sections of the city.

“A city that cuts things off is really dying,” Hirsch said. “From Greenville’s standpoint, we are always going to work, and things have life spans, and once things are built, they will eventually have to be reworked and I don’t think the city will ever stop trying to move forward.”

Hirsch also said that the areas surrounding Greenville are making impressive strides. She said every community has a uniqueness and should play to their strengths. She said Travelers Rest, Greer and Mauldin are moving forward with downtown plans and developments.

“We are really excited about all that is happening and, if everyone is growing, it benefits the entire Upstate,” Hirsch said. “It would be boring if every place was the same.”

Reach Matthew Clark at 864-235-5677, ext. 107, or @matthewclark76 on Twitter.

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