Living Room in the City

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 Apartment construction tells the story of downtown development in Greenville and Spartanburg

It is a tale of two downtowns and of one man’s vision that separates them economically.

Greenville had a Max Heller and Spartanburg didn’t. The difference perhaps can be measured today by apartment construction in the two downtowns. 

Greenville has more than 600 units on the books to be completed this year. Spartanburg has fewer than 50 and, with virtually 100 percent occupancy and more than 5,000 students attending college in the area, desperately needs more.

Colleges are thick in downtown Spartanburg and more are on the way. Spartanburg Community College’s new downtown campus will eventually bring 5,000 students. 

But students are not jobs, and Greenville’s booming apartment business is a reflection of available jobs in the downtown area – plus the amenities the city offers to those who choose to live in the heart of town and pay the rents that kind of attraction can demand, said Kay Hall, a multifamily housing specialist with NIA Earle Furman.

There is plenty of room for new business in downtown Spartanburg, said Will Rothschild, spokesman for the city. 

“We’ve renovated five class-A office buildings in the downtown area in the past few years,” he said. The jobs will eventually come.

More than 30 years ago, then-Greenville Mayor Heller foresaw the thriving downtown that Greenville enjoys today. Spartanburg went with a status quo approach that has placed the city decades behind its neighbor. Greenville is often recognized in national press as an enviable example of just how far a city can go.

Spartanburg’s downtown is a long line of empty storefronts that stand out like missing teeth along Main Street, despite the city’s best efforts to lure business.

Take heart: The Hub City is rapidly catching up, albeit with a considerable growth curve ahead, said Mayor Junie White. Greenville’s Mayor Knox White agrees. 

“Actually, they’ve come a long way over in Spartanburg,” White said. “They have a bright future ahead of them if they stay the course on downtown development.”

White should know. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, downtown Greenville looked like a war zone, with retail business abandoning choice spots along Main Street for the higher traffic volumes available in places like Haywood Road and the malls. South Main, now home to the Greenville Drive and Fluor Field, was a line of seedy bars where gunfire was a regular feature on the weekend.

Spartanburg suffered much the same fate on retail flight and has cleaned up nicely over the years. Crime is low and parking is more than ample, with multi-story parking located strategically around the downtown area.

What has not come is the business and attractions that draw the sort of crowds Greenville’s downtown enjoys. Spartanburg has been forced to take action to patch up the garages with sagging tax revenues, affecting the city’s ability to do maintenance work.

In Greenville, parking is an issue with apartment developers, Hall said. Developers are scrambling to find parcels big enough for housing and parking.

“A prime spot downtown is located on what is now two lots that once were the site of Greenville Memorial Auditorium,” Hall said. Unfortunately, there is not enough room for both apartments and parking, she said. 

The old auditorium has been replaced by the BI-LO Center, with acres of parking that remains largely unused except when major events are happening, Hall said. 

“There has been lots of talk about that parcel going to apartments, but unless they find a fix for parking it remains just talk,” she said.

Ben Graves, chief of the multifamily housing division at Johnson Development, said the company has built several projects around the edge of Spartanburg, but nothing in the city’s center.

“The major roadblock to development there is that downtown is not very walkable, and the current tax code cuts big breaks to single-family home owners and taxes commercial properties at a much higher rate,” Graves said.

There is a fine line in profitability with apartments, which always dictates whether a project is started – or not, he said.

Then there’s the old chicken and egg question of what comes first in downtown development: attractions or business opportunities? Greenville went with central anchors, which were virtually guaranteed to draw people to the area, and coupled it with sidewalk restaurants that are full on a daily basis now. Weekends in downtown Greenville draw the equivalent of a small city to enjoy the nightlife.

Spartanburg has definitely had successes. The city landed the new George Dean School of Business and the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine – both major developments – but they don’t support that many jobs or provide much in the way of taxes. Those bonuses only come with business development.

“Spartanburg can’t support the kinds of rents that Greenville or Charlotte get,” Graves said, mostly because downtown walking traffic is simply not there. 

Greenville’s rents are on par with Charlotte, said White. The city built its downtown a block at the time, starting with the agreement that brought the Hyatt Regency to the north end of Main Street and expanding south at a steady rate, pulled along by new major public and private projects – the Peace Center and Fluor Field being the prime examples, he said.

Financials drive the current apartment boom, White said. “There is financing available for apartment building; on the retail and commercial side, not so much so.” 

The boom is a nationwide trend in places like Charlotte and Atlanta, he said. “Spartanburg will eventually catch up on that side of things, too.”