The story of the West End’s rise from neglect to renaissance has been well-documented, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the explosion of luxury apartments and other high-end living spaces.
The modern side effect is evolving today: the increasing costs of housing in and around downtown Greenville pushing longtime renters and owners out of a neighborhood where less than a decade ago developers refused to invest.
The issue of affordable housing has risen to the top of the civic and political consciousness but with it comes questions of what the city is willing to trade to address the problem.
The issue is unfolding in a project before the city now — The Mosaic at the West End.
It’s a high-end project that, through partnership with public entities and tax incentives, is heralded as a potential blueprint to help solve the problem. Of 138 rental and townhome units, a quarter will be available to those who make less than the median household income.
The main aspect of the project would be a five-story apartment building along busy Academy Street. Behind it would be two- and three-story townhomes, with a three-story parking garage with 2,300 square feet of community-oriented commercial space.
One of the main development partners, Richard Jackson of Greenville-based Saint Capital, says he sees the project on the corner of Academy and Calhoun streets as providing “a meaningful change and meaningful dent in affordable housing in downtown Greenville.”
“This is a project that is true to our hearts and one that we’d like to pay special attention to as we see downtown grow,” Jackson said during a city Planning Commission meeting on Thursday when the project was up for consideration. “We want it to grow in a particular way at the highest standard, but also grow in a way that it’s possible for everyone to live in and around our beautiful downtown.”
However, the effort has yielded unintended consequences, primarily how it fits into the neighborhood made up of single-family houses that have been present for generations.
After more than an hour of discussion, including comments from nearby residents opposed to the project, the planning commission encouraged the developer to go back to the drawing board and present a new plan in December.
There were simply too many questions about how the project — with multiple stories, a parking garage, and high density — fits into the neighborhood.
Ian Thomas, president of the West End Neighborhood, said too many questions weren’t answered, even though the developer met for three hours two weeks ago with residents.
The concern, Thomas said, is that the city’s efforts to provide affordable housing are overshadowing the concerns of design and compatibility that once took center stage.
The West End has been transformed into a series of high-end, multi-family projects.
“We know it’s a unique parcel of land that’s trying to be developed,” Thomas told The Post and Courier. “I think the neighborhood feels something better could be done with the plan ahead of us.”
While the city has made a painstaking effort to integrate affordable housing into the existing neighborhood of the nearby Southernside community in preparation for the ambitious Unity Park project, Thomas said the West End’s plans over the past six years have been scattershot.
The West End neighborhood has asked for more, he said, even a temporary moratorium on new projects, but the city hasn’t responded to the request.
“We are a proponent and advocate of affordable housing,” Thomas said, “but at the same time, smart planning has to be used to have affordable housing in balance with the neighborhood.”
The planning commission heard as much Thursday from several residents who ventured to the Greenville Convention Center to participate in the public comment portion of the otherwise virtual commission meeting. Their concerns revolved around what they said was limited green space, increased traffic, and a large parking garage and townhomes and commercial space out of step with the community.
The commissioners said as much, citing concerns over the parking garage, design of the buildings and the need for more collaboration, while at the same time praising the developer for the effort and understanding solving the affordable housing has unintended consequences.
To have affordability, a project requires more density. The project proposes a density of 30 units per acre. To accommodate the density, parking solutions have to be creative. Each solution presents an accompanying challenge.
“It’s like the carnival game whack-a-mole,” said commissioner Jeff Randolph, who has a long history in Greenville of developing inventive projects that incorporate affordability and environmental compatibility. “You push on one thing and something else comes up.”
The project involves a collection of 16 properties, a mix of publicly- and privately-owned, that will create one 4.5-acre site at the corner of Academy and Calhoun streets, with development stretching back into the neighborhood along Perry Avenue.
Across Calhoun Street is the upscale West End Commons and on the opposite street over, Project Host and QuikTrip. Most of the land is vacant, except for on uninhabitable building and five rental homes owned by the Greenville Housing Authority.
The property lies within a federal “Opportunity Zone,” a designation that allows for tax incentives to promote investment in what are deemed neglected and underprivileged areas.
The tax zones, which let developers defer capital gains taxes so long as they retain ownership for 10 years, has sparked investment but also gentrification in neighborhoods like the West End, Southernside and Nicholtown. In its application for a planned development, Saint Capital says that the Mosaic project meets the original intent of the 2017 Opportunity Zone legislation, which was headed by U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.
The developers must win approval from the City Council for a planned development designation, a process that allows the city strict oversight in exchange for higher density than existing zoning allows.
The nearby residents live in mostly single-family homes in an area designated as such. The project is designed to have the five-story apartment building pushed close to Academy Street, a U.S. highway, with smaller townhomes built closer to the inner neighborhood.
The idea, which has gained steam in recent years, is to mix affordable subsidized rental housing with market rate units. That mix, plus tax breaks and financial assistance by the Greenville Housing Fund, makes affordable housing possible, Jackson said.
The city created the housing fund in 2017 to leverage local tax money with private partners for affordable housing. The housing fund’s executive director, Bryan Brown, endorsed the project during Thursday’s planning commission meeting. The original development plan called for five affordable units, but was increased to 34.
“It’s a difficult site but a terrific location,” Brown said, acknowledging the balance of affordability and density in a single-family neighborhood. “To go from five units to over 30 I just think is a remarkable achievement in this downtown location.”
Overall, the project would at a minimum create affordable units available to people making 80 percent of Area Median Income (AMI), which for this location is considered just under $50,000 for a household of three, based on federal Housing and Urban Development data.
But within that subset, Jackson said the developers hope to create units as low as 60 percent of AMI.
For its part, the planning commission isn’t able to consider affordability in its decision to recommend approval. The City Council can factor that in along with whether it accepts the recommendation of the Planning Commission.
The commission voted unanimously to delay the application until December while the developers and city planners address concerns.