Winston-Salem experiencing unprecedented downtown housing boom

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The Link Apartments at Innovation Quarter are scheduled for completion in 2019. (photo by Jordan Green)

Three new multifamily housing developments will increase the downtown housing stock in Winston-Salem by 25 percent by 2020. 

Major projects like BB&T Ballpark and Biotech Place, respectively on the west and east sides of downtown Winston-Salem, fell into place like frontier fortifications over the past decade. With continued financial support from the city, an unprecedented surge in housing development is filling in the gaps.

Across the street from Biotech Place, an early flagship of Wake Forest Innovation Quarter that opened in 2012, the new Link Apartments at Innovation Quarter rises like an ocean freighter in a space that once served as a surface parking lot stretching between Patterson Avenue and an active rail line. With an investment of $51.7 million, the mixed-use complex with a planned 340 housing units is the largest downtown development project since city planners started tracking the numbers in 2013. At the other end of the central business district, the high-end West End Station apartments are nearing completion, with 229 units, filling out a once desolate stretch of fallow urban territory west of Broad Street not far from the ballpark.

Grubb Properties, the Charlotte-based developer responsible for the Link Apartments at Innovation Quarter, has already made a foray into the Winston-Salem market. The company’s first project was the Link Apartments Brookstown, which opened in 2014 and affords direct views onto the ballpark. A third project is set to go although it hasn’t yet broken ground: As part of a larger undertaking to renovate the former GMAC Tower as a new headquarters for Flow Companies, Grubb Properties plans to build another apartment building with 230 units on a one-block surface lot along West Fourth Street.

When the planned Link Apartments at Fourth Street opens in 2020, the three projects combined will have added about 800 units to downtown, representing a 25-percent increase in housing stock, according to numbers maintained by the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership. The partnership’s running tally of residential projects charts an explosion of growth around 2014, with the repurposed Plant 64 leading a surge from 2,094 units to 3,233 today.

Investment by the city of Winston-Salem and Wake Forest University in the Innovation Quarter was a major inducement for Grubb Properties to develop housing across downtown.

“We think that all the investment the city is making, all the investment Wake Forest University and the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter are making — we’re excited,” said Emily Ethridge, a spokesperson for Grubb Properties. “We’re seeing a lot of professionals coming in, including medical professionals. We’re seeing demand for a great new product with amenities, a demand for apartments located where you can walk to work and at a price that’s affordable.”

Ethridge said prices for the new Link apartments at Innovation Quarter and Fourth Street will likely be comparable to the Link Apartments Brookstown, where monthly rents for one-bedroom apartments start at $1,025 per month. With the Fourth Street project, Grubb Properties agreed to designate 30 percent of the units as so-called “workforce housing” at 110 percent of area median income. Assistant City Manager Derwick Paige told council members the agreement would translate into rents of about $1,100 per month for the “workforce” units.

The Links Apartments at Fourth Street will be built in the parking lot in front of the old GMAC Tower. (photo by Jordan Green)

Both Link projects — at Innovation Quarter and Fourth Street — are materializing through significant public investment. A parking deck associated with the Link Apartments at Innovation Quarter received $8 million in economic assistance through matching pledges by the city of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County in property-tax reimbursements. Similarly, the city agreed to a grant of up to $1.65 million over 10 years — equivalent to 75 percent of new tax revenue — to help pay for the renovation of the former GMAC Tower and development of the Link Apartments at Fourth Street.

The incentives packages have received unanimous support from city council members. But sensitive to criticism that the new downtown housing prices out many residents, city leaders have also looked for ways to support affordable housing around the periphery of downtown. Councilman Dan Besse cited the city council’s unanimous support earlier this year of a rezoning request to allow the nonprofit Shalom Project to build 60 units of affordable housing at the southwest corner of Peters Creek Parkway and Academy Street where the Budget Inn is now located.

“This is not a gentrification project,” Besse said prior to the vote on the project, which straddles the Ardmore and West Salem neighborhoods. “This is a comprehensive, mixed-use redevelopment providing additional quality workforce housing in mind at the heart of it.”

Although there’s no magic threshold, Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership President Jason Thiel said the new burst of housing inches downtown closer to transportation and shopping improvements.

“We’d like to think we’re close or right there,” he said. “[A grocery store] is one of those needs. We’ve talked about bringing in a cooperative grocery. You’ve got things like valet parking that becomes visible.

“When it comes to transportation, should we think about things like streetcar or light rail?” he added.

In 2014, city council discussed the idea of putting a bond referendum before voters to fund a streetcar line that would have wound around downtown, connecting Winston-Salem State University and Baptist Hospital while stimulating affordable housing development. But, sensing ambivalence from voters, council members ultimately decided not to put the project on the ballot.

“There was some concern that the voters weren’t ready for that, between the people who are skeptical of all transit and people who said, ‘Fix our bus system first,’ a streetcar referendum that year would have been premature,” Besse said. “We’ve been working hard to fix our bus system so that folks who are oriented towards the bus option will feel they’ve been heard, and improvements have been made.”

Besse said he hopes that with Democratic gains in Congress and the North Carolina General Assembly, additional federal and state funding will become available for local transit projects. Incidentally, he’s running for state House this year.

“When you look at the longer-term trends of what younger people want in terms of transportation options, especially the ones who are flocking to metropolitan city centers like ours is becoming, you understand that there’s going to be an increasingly greater demand in our city for ways to get around that don’t require using your car all the time,” Besse said. “For a lot of folks that don’t require having a car, the mindset that everyone wants to live in the suburbs and drive everywhere is no longer the across-the-board reality, if it ever was. We need to recognize that, and build an infrastructure that recognizes it as well.”

The new West End Station apartments fills a gap between Broad Street and Brookstown Avenue. (photo by Jordan Green)

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