The public spat between the city of Greenville, which wants affordable housing included in the $1 billion redevelopment of County Square, and Greenville County, which says it can’t afford it on such high-end real estate, appears to be reaching a resolution.
Just what form — if any — affordable housing might take on or near the 37-acre site in downtown Greenville is anyone’s guess right now. Greenville County Council Chairman Butch Kirven and Greenville Mayor Knox White told The Greenville News this week that negotiations are ongoing and positive.
But what is currently in writing — a required 10% quota of affordable housing at the southern most end of the proposed development — has not sat well with the county and its development partners, Atlanta-based RocaPoint.
“Been working hard since last week right through the weekend,” Kirven said by text Tuesday morning to The News. “Situation appears to be evolving towards a good solution.”
White agreed that the situation is in flux but improving.
“We’ve seen lots of versions,” White wrote over the weekend in an email to The News. “Bottom line is we are flexible about how to incorporate affordable housing into the project and even help incentivize it in the adjacent Haynie-Sirrine neighborhood.”
Affordable housing quotas relatively rare
Affordable housing quotas are the law of the land in California and New Jersey. A town north of Chicago has a 20% requirement, and the mayor of London makes developers set aside fully half their units for affordable housing when building on public land there.
But here in South Carolina — and in most of the United States — affordable housing quotas remain a relative rarity, said Phil Mays, the developer behind the proposed $1 billion redevelopment project along University Ridge. The more common route is public incentives such as extra allowances on height, reduced fees or tax breaks, Mays said.
His team’s vision, in partnership with the county, is to replace County Square and other aging county-owned buildings on the 37-acre site with a high-end living, working and shopping district anchored by a $70 million, state-of-the-art new headquarters for Greenville County government at the corner of University Ridge and Church Street. Plazas, walking trails, several parking garages, luxury apartments, a theater, and a mix of four-, six-, eight- and 20-story office buildings stretching from Church Street to Howe Street are all part of the plan.
It is in this context that the county and Mays, a principal at Atlanta-based RocaPoint Partners, are lukewarm to any quota-based proposal for affordable housing at County Square.
Yet in zoning documents that the county and RocaPoint filed Oct. 2 for review by the city’s planning commission, city staff inserted a requirement that at least 10% of apartments built in the southernmost zone of the development — Zone “F” — be affordable. “Affordable,” the staff recommendation said, means affordable for those at 80% of area median income.
“A quota like that normally appears, I’ve only heard in certain cities in California,” Mays said late last week. “I have not heard anyone in the county agree to any language to that effect.”
It is unclear how many apartments the developers had in mind for Zone F, but the project’s proposal describes up to 1,500 luxury apartments across the entire development.
County Councilman Ennis Fant said no one on County Council fails to see the deep need for affordable housing; however, he said, University Ridge is not the right place for it. The county, he said, needs to maximize land sales on this site to cover the county’s portion of the project without a tax increase — a roughly $130 million commitment between the new headquarters, moving state offices and paying for infrastructure.
“It’s difficult to create affordable housing on land that will be selling in the area of $3 million an acre without a substantial amount of public-sector investment,” Fant said. “We can’t get so emotionally caught up in the affordable housing piece that we don’t generate the revenue we need.”
Much agreement with one big exception
After months of negotiations and small-group meetings, the city of Greenville’s planning commission will vote on what they want the project to look like at an Oct.17 meeting at City Hall. Only possible with a zoning update, the project then faces an up or down vote from the City Council before the end of the year, said Patrick Leonard of RocaPoint said last week.
Current zoning along University Ridge caps buildings at six stories.
RocaPoint and the county were ready to submit a zoning application in June but met resistance from the city’s planning commission over multiple issues: traffic, the height of buildings, the impact on nearby neighborhoods and the governor’s school, and city oversight on design guidelines. There ensued a four-month freeze on the project as staff and the developers hashed out solutions.
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Planning Commission Chairman David Keller said he and his colleagues — all of them volunteers — have felt an enormous obligation to get this one right.
“We got a $1 billion project in the slam middle of a downtown urban area,” Keller said. “Ain’t nothing like this has happened anywhere except maybe New York City in the 1850s. Usually we are dealing with half acre lots and making three lots of of it. There’s a huge gulf between that and this.”
Then in August White announced during a community meeting at County Square that the inclusion of affordable housing on the county land was “nonnegotiable.”
Putting in stark relief just how deeply they disagreed with the city’s position on affordable housing, Greenville County Council members then voted 7-5 last week not to support the city in its pursuit of a downtown convention center so long as the city mandated affordable housing at the County Square redevelopment site.
County Councilman Dan Tripp at the time said the city is “trying to hold us hostage on affordable housing.”
Still, Mays praised the city’s review process, saying it has strengthened the project’s master plan. The affordable housing piece, he said, is the only major point of disagreement between the development team and the city.
More than 100 other issues, from traffic mitigation (the county has committed $10 million for intersection improvements all over downtown) to the maximum height of buildings fronting the Haynie-Sirrine neighborhood (four stories), have been worked out.
The goal: generating maximum revenue
Everything owned by the county along University Ridge — the 290,000-square-foot County Square government building (formerly a shopping mall), the old Cobb Tire store and Family Court (which occupies a former movie theater) north of University Ridge, and, south of University Ridge, the health department and the DMV — will all be razed as part of the general County Square redevelopment project.
The county aims, with the assistance of RocaPoint, to sell more than 30 of the available 37 acres in stages to private-sector residential and commercial builders.
The goal is to raise $60 million to $70 million quickly to bankroll a new, high-rise county headquarters at the corner of Church Street and University Ridge while, long term, placing some of the most valuable real estate in the region on government tax rolls.
At full build out, the site in private hands could generate $21.5 million a year for city, school and county operations. The county will capture all of that money for the first 20 to 30 years to pay off various costs associated with the project. Up to $2 million a year, meanwhile, could go to the city in business-license fees and hotel/restaurant taxes.
“We made a commitment that we would do this project without a tax increase and we would sell the land to generate $70 million to build the new building,” Fant said.
To raise taxes now, he said, would be a “cataclysmic political disaster for everyone.”
Fant has said in the past that he wanted to include affordable housing as part of the project, and he told The News he has spoken to County Administrator Joe Kernell about helping the city with affordable housing just outside the County Square footprint.
Nearby residents excited, disappointed, sad
Nearby residents, dozens of whom have attended two county-hosted community meetings at County Square about the project, said they appreciate the city’s efforts; however many said they should have a more active role in planning the look, scale and development goals of the project.
A coalition of neighbors from the neighboring Haynie-Sirrine community as well as the nearby Greater Sullivan, Alta Vista and West End neighborhoods issued a statement over the weekend saying they don’t support the redevelopment plan as submitted. They said it violates the Haynie-Sirrine master plan, which includes portions of University Ridge.
But Mayor White said the plan does not apply to the county-owned property at the edge of Haynie-Sirrine.
“I recall the discussions at the time,” White said in a text to The News. “We just didn’t think city would tell county what to do on their property (except the edge of parking lot).”
Felsie Harris lives on Mchan Street two blocks south of the county project. Homes of Hope built her 29-home development (“Chicora Crest”) in 2008 and 2009, with 11 homes set aside for affordable rent. Harris — a nearly lifelong resident of the Haynie-Sirrine community — said it was her dream to see more homes built in the area.
“I’m not happy right now,” Harris said. “The city and the county seem to be feuding. Nothing seems to be getting done.”
Harking back to a five-day series of meetings in the summer of 2001 during which more than 200 Haynie-Sirrine residents weighed in on how they wanted their community to grow, these same residents said the results of that work nearly two decades ago — the Haynie-Sirrine master plan — are still relevant today. That master plan includes a zoning “overlay” with stringent rules about development types, preserving the community’s character and requirements for affordable housing.
Former state Rep. Fletcher Smith, whose law office has been on Wakefield Street in the Haynie-Sirrine community for decades, said he is prepared to sue the city if access to his business is blocked. Under the plan, the roughly half dozen single-story homes and businesses along Wakefield will face a row of four-story apartments.
“This is how my clients get to me,” he said.
Another Wakefield Street property owner, who declined to be identified, said she is excited about the project and the prospect of being able to walk to a grocery store and other shops.
Gladys Staggs, who has lived in Greenville for 60 of her 73 years, said she heard about the recent county-hosted community meetings but didn’t go. A resident of Wakefield Street for 20 years, she said she wishes it could stay quiet.
“It’s nothing that I can stop,” Staggs said.
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