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New apartment tower for downtown Greensboro?

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Developers eye new projects in downtown GSO

Matt Harrington

The Business Journal Serving the Greater Triad Area

As activity continues to pick up in downtown Greensboro, with new residential and retail projects opening, the center city's most prolific developer, Milton Kern, is looking for new investments as the buildings he now owns become fully leased.

"We're looking for other things to get involved in (downtown)," said Kern, who is already part-owner of more than 200,000 square feet of office, retail and residential space downtown through his involvement in multiple limited- liability companies.

"It's not easy," he said of the search. "It's never been easy. We're starting to see how small the downtown is. There's just not that many properties available."

Kern's desire to sink more money into downtown and the emerging success of a host of other center-city projects, seems to underscore the fact that downtown revitalization in Greensboro -- once an iffy proposition at best -- has some genuine momentum behind it.

"I think we're getting a lot of what we need," said Susan Schwartz, executive director of Action Greensboro, which is promoting downtown revitalization efforts. "Housing is critical, and entertainment, recreation and culture are critical, too. Those appear to be working.

"The next wave might be more services for people who live downtown. For the long-term, a grocery store keeps coming up, and in the long haul, we will want a school (downtown) too."

In the near-term, though, Kern and his investment partners see the need for greater capacity at Elm Street Center building, a former 75,000-square-foot department store on South Elm that's home of The Empire Room, a sprawling event space.

Brad Semon, one of the partners in The Empire Room, said the group has had great success in booking weddings and other events at the downtown ballroom. Still, he wants to finish out more space in the building to accommodate events such as the Community Theatre, which it recently hosted. Renovations to the basement will likely start late this spring, he said.

"To best serve downtown and give some closure to the project, we are going to finish the lower level (of Elm Street Center) and the main-floor area coming down from the grand staircase," Semon said. "Most importantly, this allows us to have more convention and exhibit space."

The expansion of Elm Street Center will add more than 10,000 square feet of finished space, and Semon hopes it will allow the venue be used five days a week, perhaps with bands or other kinds of entertainment. The Community Theatre drew an average of about 200 people a night during its recent run at Elm Street Center.

"It helped draw an age bracket of people that hadn't come downtown in a long time," Semon said.

New blood

Other entertainment venues are also thriving. Much of the talk on the street has been centered on Joey Medaloni's new restaurant and bar, Much, which opened in January on the 100 block of South Elm.

Also, the Hamburger Square Brewhouse, downtown's first brewery, is under construction at 345 S. Elm St. and owners Kayne Fisher and Chris Lester expect it to open by the end of next month. Late last year, Thiggy's Pizza owner Alan Thigpen opened the Next Door Tavern on the 200 block of South Elm.

"What's happening now is there's a tremendous diversification of age and interest downtown," Semon said. "When you go into Much, you walk into a crowd that's a little more mature -- it's a different crowd than in the N Club or Sky Bar. Next Door's is doing some blues music, so you've got more live music downtown, whether it be blues, jazz, rock or club music."

Kern said one of the most important parts of diversity is that there are a variety of owners putting projects together downtown and it's not the same people pushing downtown development for the last 15 years.

"That is one of the most important factors," Kern said. "It's not so much what Jim Melvin or I'm doing, but it's younger people coming in and investing their money in downtown. It's extremely important that it's not the old people running the engine."

Jim Roach, owner of Roach Realty in Greensboro which represents several downtown properties, said he continues to see demand in the area from people who want to open restaurants and night clubs.

"We get at least a call a week from someone wanting to put an entertainment venue in," Roach said. "We're pretty pleased."

He agreed with Kern that it's becoming more difficult to find properties that can be renovated.

"Buying (a property) is harder to do," he said. "Prices have gone up in people's mind because of an increase in demand."

Not just entertainment

It isn't just entertainment-related projects that are emerging downtown. Residential units are leasing and selling at a much faster rate than even a year ago, developers said.

"Things seem to be picking up now," said John Stratton, a partner in Collins Galyon & Stratton in Greensboro and the developer of the 36-unit Governor's Court condos. He's sold 22 of the 36 and believes all will be sold by the end of the year.

The Southside town home community is also pushing forward, said Bob Isner, president of O. Henry Builders, the project's developer. Southside has sold out the 56 units in its first two phases and is in the middle of construction on phase three, which consists of 18 town homes and three single-family houses. Isner said he's presold about half of those units and is already in the planning stages for a phase four.

"That will be 19 live/work units and two commercial buildings and will probably kick off early this summer," he said.

The ambitious project, located along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, got off to a slow start when it launched more than three years ago. But Isner said that people have finally been able to see that "the whole thing," referring to Southside and downtown in general "was going to come together," and that has pushed demand.

In another residential project under way, Mid-Atlantic Development Group has 34 for-sale condos under construction as part of its Smothers Place Lofts development on South Elm; another 27 units are planned.

More residential?

More residential units may be necessary downtown as well if the city is successful in landing Elon University's planned law school. Greensboro City Council voted Tuesday night to give City Manager Ed Kitchen authority to lease the former central library at Greene Street and Friendly Avenue, a move that allows the city and the school to begin negotiations.

Along those lines, Ray Gibbs, president of Downtown Greensboro Inc., said <b>outside developers have been inquiring about buying land downtown to build an apartment tower with as many as 200 units. He declined to say how serious the discussion have gotten.</b>

Meanwhile, the fate of the empty, 16-story former Wachovia tower on Friendly and North Elm remains unresolved. Cherokee Investment Partners of Raleigh, which has an option to buy the property, has not yet decided whether to proceed with plans to turn the building into offices and apartments.

Even so, Kern said development downtown has "gone a lot faster" than he ever anticipated. He said a few years ago, he put together a list of about 10 things that needed to happen downtown within the next five to 10 years.

"Most of what I said was dreams," he said. "But I think a lot of it got done. It's all happened a lot faster than I anticipated."

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Sounds like good news for Greensboro. It's good to hear that things are pucking up downtown. It sounds like there is a potential for many more projects to occur.

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I really hope the apartment tower gets off the ground. Greensboro's skyline hasn't changed in 14 years. After 14 years it get kinda dull having the same skyline. Then there is the highrise federal courthouse thats suppose to start contruction in 2006. I'm stunned to hear about all these residential projects and I hope to see even more.

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Greensboro's skyline hasn't changed in 14 years. After 14 years it get kinda dull having the same skyline.

Yeah, I know how that is. Detroit hasn't put up a skyscraper in more than 10 years, and the city of Flint hasn't had a new skyscraper downtown since the 1980s. I guess Michigan just doesn't like skyscrapers :(.

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Do any of you guys have some pics, or link to pics of those historic infill homes going in east of Elm and north of Lee in downtown? (not sure the exact streets) Raleigh has a similar but larger scale project ready to start up and I think these homes are a great example of what Raleigh can expect. BTW, Elm is quite a cool place with all its preserved old buildings and good night life...

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Do any of you guys have some pics, or link to pics of those historic infill homes going in east of Elm and north of Lee in downtown? (not sure the exact streets) Raleigh has a similar but larger scale project ready to start up and I think these homes are a great example of what Raleigh can expect. BTW, Elm is quite a cool place with all its preserved old buildings and good night life...

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Sounds like you are talking about the Southside downtown neighborhood. The Southside development is a combination of historic renovations, new single famliy homes, townhoms, live-work units and apartments. Here are some old threads that have photos

http://www.urbanplanet.org/forums/index.php?showtopic=19594

http://www.urbanplanet.org/forums/index.php?showtopic=19595

http://www.urbanplanet.org/forums/index.php?showtopic=13683

http://www.urbanplanet.org/forums/index.php?showtopic=13682

http://www.urbanplanet.org/forums/index.php?showtopic=13684

There is also a large apartment complex planned for southside call "City View Apartments" Primarily because of the great view of Greensboro's skyline

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