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Rezoning vote ignores obvious problem


Buildings at the Captain's Quarter student housing complex have been sitting empty since 2016.


Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Greenville City Council on Thursday ignored loud objections and obvious signs that the city’s student housing market is saturated when it voted unanimously for a zoning change that will allow for a new 656-bed development on Charles Boulevard a short distance north of Fire Tower Road.

Pending approval of special-use permitting at Tuesday’s meeting of the city Planning and Zoning Commission, the development called The Retreat will be constructed on the east side of Charles of next to Grace Church. It will be part of an 85-acre mixed-use development that also will include about 180 homes and 60,000 square feet of office space.

The Retreat’s entrance will sit directly across from Tara Court, the entrance to an 888-bed student housing complex called The Landing. That will create another busy, four-way intersection between Hyde Drive and Fire Tower, the latter of which already is one of the city’s most wreck-prone crossroads.

In a letter dispatched on Wednesday, the owner of The Landing urged the council to deny the rezoning. Fred Pierce of Pierce Education Properties said student housing here was at 92 percent occupancy in the 2016-17 Academic Year. He said 95 percent is considered necessary for a stable market.

The 92 percent figure likely is a conservative estimate considering the state of The Captain’s Quarters, formerly North Campus Crossing, a 1,700-bed complex on Martin Luther King Highway north of the river.

Richard Hart, a principal with ChainBridge Capital, said in another letter to the council on Wednesday that 1,450 beds at the complex were empty this year. His company was looking to make $5 million in improvements at the complex and hire additional staff to bring it to full occupancy by August 2018.

Then there is the ongoing boom of apartment construction in the downtown area. Campus Edge on 10th Street is expected to bring another 600 beds, University Edge on Dickinson Avenue will have 150 units for students and young professionals, and Gather Uptown at Greene and Fifth streets is expected to accommodate another 400 residents.

Approving The Retreat, warned Hart, “will cause significant vacancy and financial hardship from which many student properties may not recover, and will substantially impair our (and other’s) ability and willingness to invest in Captain’s Quarters.”

Pierce added that unconstrained development of student housing in other cities has “induced depressed property values, foreclosures, reduced property tax bases and other undesirable consequences.”

Indeed, the thought of massive vacant apartment complexes worries people. Thousands read Friday’s story about the vote in the paper, on reflector.com and through social media. One Facebook commenter said “I am so disappointed and feel like I need to put my condo on the market sooner rather than later.”

The council’s unanimous vote sent the message that it will blindly approve developments that fit planning requirements without regard to their impact on the greater good of the the city. Councilman McLean Godley said matter before the board on Thursday was a zoning issue, not a housing market issue.

That is a head-in-the-sand approach. The council should have worked with developers to ensure a more beneficial development on the plot, maybe even some nice apartments for people who are not students.

Alas, it was never going to be. Special-use requests for The Retreat were already on the Planning & Zoning agenda when it was released Thursday afternoon, hours before the council even met to discuss the issue.