What’s the highest and best use for this 31-acre patch of prime downtown real estate?
With the economy improving and recent announcements of new development projects downtown such as hotels, apartments and retail, Greenville is once again wondering what will be done with the sprawling, 31-acre County Square property.
It’s no secret or surprise that the former Furman University site-turned-Bell Tower shopping-mall-turned-county-government-offices at 301 University Ridge is somewhat of an eyesore.
“The facility now is dated and not the most efficient use for county offices. We can do better,” said Greenville County Administrator Joe Kernell.
Greenville County and the city of Greenville are both contemplating the potential highest and best use for the property. “Highest and best use” is a concept in real estate appraisal that demonstrates how the highest value for a property is achieved and what – according to The Appraisal of Real Estate – is “the reasonably probable and legal use of vacant land or an improved property, which is physically possible, appropriately supported, financially feasible, and that results in the highest value.”
The county square property “is such a great opportunity,” said Doug Harper, who leads Harper Corporation, a local general contracting firm. “It’s unusual to have such a large tract of land” potentially available within a city. A native Greenvillian, Harper says he has seen the property go through the various stages of transformation over the years.
Kernell said that the county has considered several different suggested uses for the property over the years, but probably the most comprehensive planning exercise for the property to date comes from the 2012 graduate class of the Clemson Master of Real Estate Development (MRED) program.
“Bright Kids” Take On County Square
Clemson’s 10-year-old MRED program is one of only nine or 10 such programs in the country. The two-year, full-time graduate program offers a joint degree between Clemson’s architectural and business schools with project-based curriculum that graduates can apply in the working world.
“It’s a good program and somewhat unique,” said Kernell. “There are some bright kids in that program.”
The program accepts 15-20 new students each year, and required classes include finance, law, construction science and management, architecture, city and regional planning and real estate development.
Each second-year class is divided into four teams and given a practicum project that focuses on a “highest and best use” property or area. Projects are not always located in South Carolina, but are usually “within a two-hour drive of Greenville,” said MRED program director Robert Benedict. Previous projects have included Bull Street in Columbia, land near Biltmore Park in Asheville and Morris Brown College in Atlanta.
The students choose a “company name” and are then required to do market and financial analysis, a site plan, history, site analysis and proposal, case studies of similar projects, a project timeline, master development plan, housing profiles and land use plans.
There’s no thesis or comprehensive exam, says Benedict. The project is all consuming and competition is fierce. The students are given the assignment in September and present the completed project in April before a jury comprised of local leaders, developers and architects.
Bold Vision From Winning Plan
The presentations from the four teams that tackled County Square all proposed dense, mixed-use developments that took into consideration the current zoning of the property, which is planned unit development in the University Ridge Village Center Overlay District. Maximum height allowed in this district is six stories. All but one of the presentations included a six-story building for county offices.
The winning presentation from MRED team Palmetto Property Partners – called The Gallery at Falls Park – proposed the integration of a new six-story, 300,000 square-foot county office building with an additional 1 million square feet of strategically placed mixed-use development along a new network of streets and sidewalks.
According to the students’ plan, the development “cornerstones” include integrating the Greenville county office complex as “part of a thriving mixed-use district of downtown which will support and enhance the existing urban fabric of Main Street.”
The proposal encouraged outdoor “living rooms” through the implementation of an extensive network of internal pedestrian walkways, public green spaces, alfresco dining options and outdoor residential amenities such as a rooftop pool area for condominium residents and hotel guests.
Healthy living would be promoted for district residents and visitors through avenues such as the expansion of the Swamp Rabbit Trail along the site’s northern boundary.
Neighborhood retail conveniences would be delivered to the surrounding neighborhoods of Haynie-Sirrine, Augusta Road and downtown Greenville and provide destination shopping and dining for the greater Upstate area.
When completed, the proposed development would have the 300,000 square feet of county offices, 350 multifamily apartments, 90 condos, 15 townhomes, 217,500 square feet of retail space, 165,000 square feet of office space, and a 110-room hotel. Estimated timeframe for construction was five years.
Financial analysis was another important component of the students’ assignment. Deal structures were included with a purchase model approach that incorporated a public-private partnership for financing public infrastructure. It also included setting up a TIF (tax increment financing) fund.
The Gallery at Falls Park total development costs was estimated at $260 million. Infrastructure costs came in at $16.5 million, annual tax-basis generated at full build-out were $2.2 million, total revenues to Greenville county were estimated at $31.1 million and total returns to Palmetto Property Partners approximated $14 million. A land basis of $850,000 per acre was used.
Affordable Living, Theater Also on Table
The second runner-up presentation, The Ridge at Falls Park, included a centrally located retail square that would serve as a focal point for the site. The proposal included plans to extend the city’s park network by offering additional park space on the development site with an added trail network.
The third presentation, The Belfry, recommended a town center and entertainment districts at the center of the site, with roughly 72,000 square feet of retail at street level and three floors of apartments totaling 222 units above. The plan would also include a hotel and affordable housing for moderate to low-income residents. A six-floor county building and a war memorial were also proposed.
The fourth presentation, Reedy South, would include a state-of-the-art amphitheater, an art house cinema with an outdoor screen, and a luxury 12-room hotel, along with retail, office, condos and apartments. It would also include 150 multifamily units, 29 condos, 350,000 square feet of retail space and 40,000 square feet of office space. Development costs totaled $121.6 million.
“The Sky’s the Limit” for Future Options
For now, Kernell says the county is continuing to ponder the future of the County Square property and what will make the most sense, but there are no concrete plans.
“We’re taking a hard, hard look at it,” he said. “We’ll know more as the process develops.”
Harper said it “behooves the county to be deliberate and careful with its planned uses. There are a lot of different activities going on there. It’s almost like the sky’s the limit with mixed-use, condos, hotels and maybe even a convention center. It has a lot of potential, but must be carefully considered and planned. “
Next up, students in the 2013-2014 class have been “digging into” the Spinx Plaza area at East Washington Street and Laurens Road. Benedict says the teams are working hard on the projects, and the area most likely will include some sort of mixed-use development suggestions. Presentations and judging are set for April 11 and will be featured in the Upstate Business Journal’s April 25 Commercial Real Estate Issue.