Is County Square the most valuable downtown property waiting to be redeveloped?

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How much would a developer pay for nearly 38 acres of high ground within walking distance of Falls Park, Fluor Field and the Swamp Rabbit Trail in downtown Greenville? Greenville County may be posing that question to developers in a formal way early next year in what could signal the beginning of one of the biggest downtown development deals to date, if not the biggest.

For a decade county officials have mulled turning County Square, the site of county headquarters, over to the private sector for redevelopment. In exchange for the land, county officials think they could get a new office tower and parking garage on the same site — and if they had to kick in some cash as part of the deal, it should be far less than what an office tower and parking garage would normally cost.

Another benefit: a valuable property that is not currently on the tax rolls because it’s owned by the county would begin generating tax revenue — not to mention the jobs that would come from firms recruited by the developer.

County officials put the idea on hold during the Great Recession, but now the real estate market has recovered and developers are paying record prices for downtown property. And the county’s main office building at County Square — constructed 46 years ago as a shopping center — is beginning to show its age. The county is looking at having to spend as much as $3 million to repair the building’s leaky roof, said John Hansley, deputy administrator.

A new chapter in County Square’s rich history could begin as soon as County Council gives the go-ahead for redevelopment. “We’ve all discussed it, and it makes absolute sense,” said Councilman Fred Payne. “It’s one of the most valuable pieces of property in the city and there’s a high demand for it.”

Outgoing Councilman Jim Burns, chair of an ad hoc committee studying the potential redevelopment, said the idea enjoys support on council.

“The land is too valuable for what it is right now,” Burns said. “We don’t need it. We don’t need all that land. What we need is a nice, functional county office building to be able to provide services to the citizens. That piece of land is so valuable, and it’s not even on tax rolls.

“Everybody wants to do this,” Burns said. “They want to make sure it’s done right.”

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County Administrator Joe Kernell said developers from Atlanta, Charlotte, New York and Dallas have expressed interest in the property, as have local developers.

“If a deal looks like it’s doable, I think we’ll get it done,” he said.

In addition to the main County Square property of a little more than 30 acres, the county owns two office buildings with parking lots across University Ridge that comprise another seven acres or so. Wrapping all the parcels together into a single, master-planned development would change the face of downtown.

“I don’t think there’s anything you couldn’t do there because it’s so large,” said Bob Hughes, the Greenville developer behind many of Main Street’s biggest and most-prominent developments. “And I don’t think there’s anything that wouldn’t do well there.”

Brody Glenn, president of Greenville’s Centennial American Properties, which paid $13.25 million for four acres along Main Street to launch its Camperdown development, called County Square “the biggest contiguous piece of property downtown” and a “great development site.”

“It’s something that can be a real asset for the city of Greenville if it’s done right,” said Glenn, a former chairman of the city’s Planning Commission. “And hopefully the county will select a developer that will be able to keep the foundation that we have built along Main Street and downtown.”

Earle Furman, a longtime local commercial real estate broker, ticked off the features of County Square that a developer would find attractive: It’s owned by a single entity; it’s adjacent to a vibrant downtown; it has the elevation to offer views of Main Street and the downtown skyline; it’s accessible from major roads. “All of those come together to make this an absolutely prime development site for a major mixed-use development,” he said.

Furman said he thinks the county will be able to cut a deal with a developer eventually. “I think the land, while pretty much stagnant for a number of years, is going to see a rapid rise in value due to not only its location but also its elevation,” he said.

 

A RICH HISTORY

 

The property where County Square now sits has played a prominent role in Greenville history since 1851, when Furman University relocated to the site from Winnsboro.

That year, the Baptist school bought 25 acres on a bluff overlooking the Reedy River from businessman Vardry McBee, known as the “father of Greenville,” according to a 1951 history of Furman. The university then moved to its current campus along U.S. 25 north of Greenville in the 1950s, but had originally intended to stay downtown, according to local historian Judy Bainbridge, who has studied the history of County Square.

Furman “had tried for years to buy up land around (the County Square site) because they knew they had to expand,” Bainbridge said. “And everybody raised their prices, doubling them over what they really ought to have been.”

Furman completely vacated the County Square site in 1958 and eventually turned it over to a real estate developer. A 345,000-square-foot shopping center called Bell Tower Mall opened on the site in 1970.

It was anchored by discounter Woolco and included a Winn-Dixie grocery, an Edwards department store, a multi-screen theater and an 18-foot replica of the old Furman bell tower, according to Bainbridge. The mall had to compete with a Kmart on Mills Avenue and the McAlister Square shopping center on Pleasantburg Drive, which was new at the time. Plus, Bainbridge said, there weren’t enough shoppers in Greenville’s West End to support Bell Tower Mall. It died not long after Woolco closed in 1982.

Greenville County bought the property in 1984 for $2.3 million and made it the county’s main base of operations in 1987.

 

A DECADE-OLD IDEA

 

The idea of redeveloping County Square once again surfaced a decade ago after a Miami developer named Jackson Ward bought the former Greenville Mall property on Woodruff Road.

Kernell, the county administrator, remembers calling Ward the day after the transaction closed to explore the idea of relocating county headquarters to the property Ward had just bought. They couldn’t agree on a price the county might pay for the former Greenville Mall, so they started talking about the possibility of Ward buying County Square and redeveloping it to include a new office tower and parking garage for the county, Kernell recalled. As the talks progressed, the county drew up an incentives package for the project and gave it the code name Project Skyline. The deal, however, fell apart with the onset of the Great Recession.

Over the years, county officials have watched as the wave of redevelopment that began on Main Street three decades ago began to splash onto properties all around County Square.

Hughes, the Greenville developer, turned a former warehouse into office space at the corner of University Ridge and Church Street, right next to County Square, and Charleston’s Beach Company put apartments and restaurants on the same corner. A stone’s throw from County Square on Augusta Street, Greenville developer Steve Navarro turned the former Claussen Bakery into office and retail space.

Kernell thinks the time may be ripe to redevelop County Square itself.

“We feel the market right now anyway, the downtown market, has been very strong,” he said. “And based on the number of discussions we’ve had with outside developers, they feel it’s very strong.”

As a first step, the county has hired a local architectural firm, McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture, to study the county’s needs for office space. After the study is complete, the county could issue a request for proposals to redevelop County Square and get responses back from developers sometime in the first quarter.

 

WHAT MIGHT GO THERE?

 

Kernell said the county won’t tell a developer what to propose for any new development, except it would like to have a new county office tower and parking garage on the site. He also said an ambulance station and ambulance resupply operation located at County Square now probably won’t go into any new county office tower, if one gets built, nor will certain state government offices that the county is required to house. Those include the departments of Health and Environmental Control, Social Services and Probation, Parole and Pardon Services. The county also owns enough property to facilitate a possible re-alignment of University Ridge, connecting it to Augusta Street by means of Claussen Avenue or Thruston Street, instead of Harris Street. That could improve the flow of traffic and keep it away from neighborhoods, Kernell said.

Darrell Cobb, owner of a tire store and auto repair shop that’s been on the County Square property for 39 years, declined to comment about the redevelopment plans.

Greenville developer Paul C. “Bo” Aughtry, who has developed three hotels downtown, said the County Square property is big enough to accommodate significant employers, including corporate headquarters. “In my opinion, with all of the new housing downtown, meaningful employment opportunity is what is needed in order to make the urban equation function as it is ideally intended — live, work and play without having to get into one’s vehicle,” Aughtry said.

The city of Greenville will have to sign off on any redevelopment of County Square since the property is inside city limits, and City Manager John Castile said public parking is one issue the city may want to address. Right now, County Square and its acres of blacktop provide some of the parking for Fluor Field, the minor league baseball stadium at the south end of Main Street, which has no parking of its own.

“As that West End continues to change, parking in the West End becomes more and more important, especially if County Square is redeveloped,” Castile said.

Hughes, whose downtown developments include Poinsett Plaza, RiverPlace and ONE City Plaza, said any new county parking garage would be virtually empty at night and could be shared with an apartment complex or a movie theater. He hopes any developer picked to remake County Square would donate land to the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, which abuts County Square and where Hughes is on the board.

“I would definitely, definitely give some land to the Governor’s School so it could expand and create a front door,” Hughes said. “Good mixed-use development has public elements like the ONE Plaza, or the Riverwalk at the Reedy or even the little square in front of Poinsett Plaza. You want a public square, and the Governor’s School makes a good public partner if they can connect up.”

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