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Greenville Business Magazine

Unity Park offers a new vision for public-private partnerships thanks to a focus on affordable housing

Jul 09, 2019 09:54AM
By Elizabeth Pandolfi

When students at the A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering look out their classroom windows, they see a city in transition. 

On the back side of the school, there’s the Salvation Army Kroc Center Greenville, the multi-million dollar fitness, recreation, and community center that boasts sports fields, an indoor pool, and an expansive fitness center. Just a bit further, across the street, is the luxury apartment complex Trailside at Reedy Point apartments, where a one-bedroom, 800-plus-square foot apartment will cost you more than $1,300 per month in rent. 

On the other side, where parents and school buses pull up every morning to drop off their children, the view is a bit different. That side looks out onto a demolished City of Greenville Public Works facility. Stretching beyond that facility is the West Side of Greenville, a historically segregated and low-income area of town that is just beginning to see some revitalization. 

That change is now speeding up, as the city starts work on one of the most ambitious park projects Greenville has ever undertaken: Unity Park. The park, which is being funded by public-private partnerships, will incorporate 60 acres of long-neglected land and include amenities like a playground, spray park, an observation tower, a pedestrian bridge over the Reedy River, open green space, and meeting spaces, among others. 

What makes Unity Park truly unique, however, is another amenity that’s not usually associated with parks: affordable housing. It’s all part of the vision for Unity Park as a space that is truly and intentionally inclusive—a park that really is for everyone. 

To pull that off, the city is innovating a brand-new approach to the public-private partnership, and establishing new ways of engineering inclusivity into public projects. 

Public-private partnerships—with a twist
The city of Greenville has a long history of effective public-private partnerships. That’s how much of the city’s downtown was transformed, beginning with the Greenville Commons project in 1982. The Commons incorporated the Hyatt Regency Hotel, as well as the adjacent parking garage, and restaurant and meeting space, and was substantially funded by private donations as well as public funds. 

“If you think back to the history of public-private partnerships, Greenville really is on the cutting edge of this,” says Mayor Knox White. “This [Unity Park] is a public-private partnership, but with a twist. We’re doing something different.” 

That “something different” has to do mainly with the affordable housing component. The city has established the Greenville Housing Fund, a nonprofit entity that is funded by both philanthropic donations from organizations like TD Bank, and by surpluses from the city of Greenville’s operating budget. The fund was created to promote and develop affordable housing after a 2016 city-funded study found that Greenville had an affordable housing deficit of 2,500 units.

The fund’s mission is threefold, says Bogue Wallin, Greenville Housing Fund Board chair and principal and owner of Blue Wall Real Estate. “First, it’s to invest in the creation and preservation of affordable units. Second is to be a kind of land bank—to identify parcels of land that could be affordable housing, and hold on to them before development gets to them. Or, on the opposite side, to identify parcels that have been passed over for development and reposition them for affordable units. And the third is to be the convener, conscience, and advocate for affordable housing in Greenville.” 

In the context of Unity Park, that translates to working primarily within the historically low-income Southernside neighborhood that surrounds the park. Due to urban reorganization, as well as some road projects that cut through the neighborhood, Southernside hasn’t fared well, and exhibits some of the signs of urban decay: abandoned houses and empty lots, for example. 

But as the redevelopment of Greenville’s downtown has pushed further and further west, Southernside has become a prime candidate for gentrification, and all the problems it brings with it. “The neighborhood is under pressure,” Wallin says. “The city’s growth, along with the development of Unity Park, risks creating more pressure. It goes without saying that people like parkside properties—if you can cozy up to something like a park, you create lasting value.” 

So, instead of simply developing the park, then standing back and letting the market eventually price Southernside residents out of their homes—which is typically what happens as cities redevelop—the city of Greenville is being much more hands-on. 

The city owns land that surrounds the park’s footprint, and they’ll be maintaining control of that land so it can be used specifically to create affordable housing. “What we’ve done, in a sense, is to make it all part of the park,” says Mayor White. “People will ask me, how does [affordable housing] connect to the park? And I say, it’s not a matter of connecting. It is the park.” 

The city has been lucky to find eager supporters for Unity Park and its vision of inclusivity within the private sector. 

A private land donor, Wayne Trotter, recently donated a nearby lot that he owns—which Trotter estimates is valued at around $250,000—to the park. 

TD Bank has made an initial commitment of $50,000 to the Greenville Housing Fund, which is being used to conduct a feasibility study on affordable housing. “What we’ve said to the Housing Fund is that we’re very interested in investing more,” says David Lominack, South Carolina Market President of TD Bank. “Let’s see what the feasibility study tells us, and then let’s understand what the need is.” 

The fund is currently conducting that study, working closely with the Southernside Neighborhood Association to discover what strategies will work best to preserve and create more affordable housing units. “Right now it looks like it will fall into three big buckets,” Wallin says. “One would be, obviously, developing the city land with affordable housing.” 

The second likely strategy would involve homeownership preservation—helping current homeowners stay in their homes. The final strategy would involve homeownership expansion, or encouraging greater homeownership in the neighborhood. This can be done through initiatives like down payment grants that people pay back over time.  

Other private donors include technology company SYNNEX, which has committed $250,000 to build the SYNNEX Share the Magic Playground, and Auro Hotels, which has committed $500,000 for the Auro Bridge. More recently, Michelin Corporate Foundation donated $1 million toward Unity Park and will receive naming rights to the expansive green. Additional private donations total $2.6 million, and will cover projects like the splash park, the Observation Tower, and the restoration of the historic Mayberry Park, the segregation-era African-American park which will be incorporated into Unity Park.    

In a very real way, Unity Park and its intentional inclusivity represents the evolution of the city’s radically successful revitalization mindset that created Falls Park. “If you go back, we built Falls Park, and it’s this great public amenity,” says Mayor White. “But the private aspect, we had no control—we didn’t even purport to have any control over that. The private side is condos, apartments, restaurants, these beautiful spaces, but inclusive it is not. There’s not a lot of affordability there. And that’d be typical for most public-private partnerships out there.”

With Unity Park, the city has a chance to do something different, and in doing so, to be at the forefront of finding new ways to ensure equitable development that lifts up everyone—not just members of a certain economic class. “Our public-private partnership will look fundamentally different because we are going to be concerned about the private side of development,” Mayor White says. “We’re setting the ground rules. That’s our commitment to affordability and affordable housing. And I think people are going to come from all over the country to see that.”