Who owns downtown?

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Winston-Salem and Greensboro on the rise

by Jordan Green

photos by Caleb Smallwood

The downtowns of Winston-Salem and Greensboro experienced brisk growth in the first half of the decade, with the aggregate value of real estate in both downtown Winston-Salem and downtown Greensboro topping $1 billion in 2015. Greensboro, a city with a larger population but a smaller, more diffuse downtown, gained on its more dynamic neighbor to the west, increasing aggregate value from $807.8 million to $1.0 billion in the past five years.

Building on investments in Restaurant Row on West Fourth Street, the Milton Rhodes Arts Center and the BB&T Ballpark in the past 15 years, the most dramatic transformation in downtown Winston-Salem is the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, an urban research park rising from the historic RJ Reynolds tobacco works, which in turn is catalyzing a housing boom.

Total valuation of downtown Winston-Salem

2010 total valuation: $992.5 million

2010 valuation per acre: $2.7 million

2015 total valuation: $1.1 billion

2015 valuation per acre: $3.0 million

Change in valuation (10-15): 0.8%

“Very few downtowns have the luxury of having an urban research park in the city grid,” said Jason Thiel, who has led the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership since 2006. “There are a number of large floor plans in manufacturing buildings that are very viable for reuse for many different reuses: housing, laboratories, entertainment — some for government buildings. The fact that we had a stock of buildings available, with a combination of state and federal [historic] tax credits, along with a large institution in need of growth — Wake Forest University Medical Center, a medical school and major research institution — created viable tenants with the ability to pay rent and buildings that could house them. This wasn’t done overnight. It required a tremendous amount of infrastructure work.”

Built in the shell of RJ Reynolds Tobacco’s Building 91 by Baltimore-based Wexford Science & Technology, the new BioTech Place became one of Winston-Salem’s most valuable properties when it opened in 2012, and provided a setting for a visit by Vice President Joe Biden later that year. Another renovation project by Wexford, 525 @ Vine, followed suit in 2014, housing Baptist Hospital’s division of public health sciences and department of physician assistant studies, along with the Flywheel co-working space.

While Greensboro lacks a catalytic project of the same scope as the innovation quarter, a budding interest in urbanism, nourished by a bloom of open-air markets, brewpubs and fine dining, has instigated activity and investment.

Much of the growth to date has occurred on the southern and northern fringes: The Railyard, previously a homeless encampment, has become a focal point, hosting the monthly City Market and serving as a hub for the Spice Cantina, the Worx restaurant, Gibb’s Hundred Brewing, the Forge makerspace and soon HQ Greensboro. But the growth along the north end of downtown jumpstarted by the nascent Downtown Greenway represents the biggest investment to date: The Greenway @ Fisher Park Apartments and the Greenway @ Stadium Park Apartments, built by brothers James N. Jones and Stephen C. Jones, have added a combined $23.1 million to the Guilford County tax roll. The greenway also presaged Deep Roots Market’s relocation to the downtown in 2013. Across the street, Preyer Brewing Co. recently opened in a renovated building, and will soon be joined by Crafted: The Art of Street Food.

Total valuation of downtown Greensboro

2010 total valuation: $807.8 million

2010 valuation per acre: $1.9 million

2015 total valuation: $1.0 billion

2015 valuation per acre: $2.4 million

Change in valuation (10-15): 27.8%

“It’s definitely a hotspot for where people want to be both doing business and living,” said Hanna Cockburn, the manager for long-range and strategic planning for the city of Greensboro. “I think there are a lot of factors that influence where people want to live. There’s something of a pendulum effect that swings back and forth. At the end of the day people want to live in interesting places with interesting things to do, and downtowns provide that.”

Gary Brame, who owns Jules Antiques and Fine Art and who serves as chair of Downtown Greensboro Inc., noted that during the 2012 tax revaluation, property values across Guilford County rose only about 1 percent while values in downtown soared 18 percent.

Strictly by the numbers, downtown Greensboro’s 26.9 percent rise in property values looks more impressive than downtown Winston-Salem’s 0.8 percent increase. The timing and frequency of the tax reappraisals in the counties that host the two cities probably accounts for much of the discrepancy.  Guilford County, where Greensboro is located, is on an eight-year schedule, with recent revaluations in 2004 and 2012. Downtown Greensboro experienced significant growth from 2004 to the onset of the recession in 2009, including completion of NewBridge Bank Ballpark and Center Pointe, construction of CityView Apartments and renovation of the Kress Building. All that was captured in the 2012 revaluation.

In comparison, Forsyth County, which is on the four-year schedule, started its most recent cycle in 2009, while the market was at a peak just before the start of the recession. The 2013 revaluation reflected the damage of the foreclosure crisis. Alan Myrick, Guilford County’s assistant assessor for real estate, said tracking the growth of downtown real estate values in the two cities over about 12 years would likely reveal similar patterns and trends.