Greenwood city council members on Monday gave the green light for long-discussed development of the former middle school property.
Luxury apartments, condos, townhomes, retail and a large parking garage will soon occupy the site of the former Greenwood Middle School, between Madison Avenue and Meridian Street in the heart of downtown.
The $83 million development will include seven buildings with nearly 300 market-rate apartments, more than 15 condos and more than 40 townhomes, along with 18,000 square feet of office and retail space on the first floors of the buildings. The condos and townhomes will likely start at about $300,000, though specific prices have not been determined. It is unclear how much the apartments will cost to rent. It will depend on the market at the time.
A 36,000-square-foot, three-story parking garage with more than 500 spots will also be built on the properties. Additional surface parking and garages attached to apartment buildings will bring total parking to 992 spots, with some set aside for residents, and others for the public visiting the area for dining and shopping, or for recreation at nearby parks and the soon-to-be fieldhouse.
The project is years in the making, dating back to 2013, when a master plan to redevelop the area was started. It will be done through a public-private partnership between the city and developers, CRG Residential and Great Lakes Capital.
The Greenwood City Council approved funding for Greenwood’s end of the deal by a vote of 8-1 Monday night at its first in-person meeting since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020. The city council approved a tax-increment financing, or TIF, bond of $15 million to pay for the parking garage, stormwater and street improvements, and another $12.8 million bond that will go directly to the developers as an incentive, all from the central TIF.
The vote came after hours of debate on the project from concerned residents, community stakeholders, city employees and the council members that spanned three meetings in the last month.
The hours-long discussions focused on locals’ concerns about traffic congestion in the area surrounding the development, and the impact it will have on the city’s infrastructure. A few residents that attended the meetings also voiced concerns about the city’s transparency about the project.
At Monday night’s meeting, members of the public filled most of the seats in the city council chamber. Each group of people — those in favor of the project, and those opposed — were given 20 minutes to speak to the council during the time allotted for public comments.
Addressing traffic concerns
A handful of those who spoke were mainly concerned about traffic, particularly on Orchard Lane, between Madison Avenue and U.S. 31.
Resident Laura Johnson, who lives on Orchard, told council members traffic has increased on the road because cars and trucks drive through the neighborhood to avoid the roundabout at Smith Valley Road.
“We have children that play along the street; we have a man with dementia; we have some elderly people,” Johnson said. “I’d hate to see that taken away from them because traffic is coming down the street at 40 miles per hour.”
Johnson was not opposed to the project as a whole, but asked the city to come up with a plan to direct traffic elsewhere.
Traffic has been the hot-button issue surrounding the proposed development. Downtown Greenwood is a dense, high-traffic area with narrow streets and narrow sidewalks in some parts. The city paid A&F Engineers to conduct a study of all the roads in the area in 2016, based on current traffic numbers at the time and anticipated traffic from a future residential development.
Lucy Bartley, another resident at the meeting Monday night, pointed out that traffic has always been an issue in the area, especially when the middle school was on the property. She said traffic in the area should not be a deal breaker for the new development.
“My daughter was a student at the middle school when it was there, and traffic was a flipping nightmare,” Bartley said. “I don’t know where people got the idea that the traffic will be any worse now just because of this.”
Council member Bradley Pendleton, in particular, brought up several concerns about traffic at previous council meetings in which the project was presented. He expressed concern that the traffic study was done five years ago, he said at the time.
The study, which was thorough in mapping out several scenarios of potential development, concluded that traffic would not increase to an outrageous level beyond the city’s control, even in the year 2036. It speculated traffic levels for 472 residential units and 26,400 square feet of retail, with an estimated 1.5% population growth rate.
This project calls for 368 residential units and 18,000 square feet of retail space, well below what was used in the study, and A&F sent a letter to the City of Greenwood in January reaffirming the study is still accurate years later.
Investing in improving the infrastructure in the area has long been in the works, mainly due to recommendations from that traffic study, said Kevin Steinmetz, the city’s capital projects manager.
For example, the city added the roundabout at Madison and Smith Valley to increase traffic flow. The intersections used to be three traffic lights, and traffic would be backed up for miles at peak times during the day.
The Madison Avenue streetscape project to widen the road and sidewalks was also part of the city’s plans to better control traffic in the area. Surina Way was built between Madison Avenue and Washington Street to add another route through the downtown area, Steinmetz said.
The city has also worked to improve traffic flow east to west through Greenwood from Interstate 65 with the fairly new Worthsville Road interchange. They also expanded Worthsville Road to direct commuters away from Main Street and the downtown area.
Next, the city will focus on reimagining the Madison Avenue and Main Street intersection, a narrow stretch that needs widened, restructured and beautified. Plans for that design are complete and set to be reviewed soon, so construction could start this year, Steinmetz said.
The plans are not perfect, and there will likely continue to be challenges with traffic as the city changes and grows, but that is something every community deals with. Even with the improvements and plans for the new development, the goal is not to make downtown Greenwood the next “Emerson Avenue or State Road 135,” where traffic is constant, he said.
“One of the big reasons we have cities and governments is to continually respond to changes in traffic and ways in which traffic moves,” Steinmetz said. “We’re going to get entirely new patterns at new times that are going to require new improvements. That is one of the big things we’re charged with, and all local governments are.”
Crime, schools and transparency
Another common concern among residents was that rental properties might bring in more crime, and the Greenwood Police Department is understaffed.
Area resident Jay Hart said Monday night the new development might “look great now,” but he was concerned it would fall apart 10 or 15 years in the future. He said the developer might decide to turn the rental apartments into lower-income housing in the future, and the area might not be kept up with.
“People love to see retail, they’d love to see condos there instead, places with ownership where people care about the community,” Hart said.
He also opposed the city contributing more than $27 million in taxpayer money to a private development, and went on to criticize the city for not better informing the public about the project. Many residents did not know anything about it, he said.
“Just because they don’t show up here and complain, it’s not a green light to try and push a project through,” Hart said.
Greenwood Mayor Mark Myers, at a council meeting last month, addressed concerns about crime and the understaffed police and fire departments, adding that neither department was against the project.
The types of residents the apartments will be marketed to will likely have higher incomes, he said.
“Those types of residents don’t bring a lot of problems to the city. They don’t bring a lot of crime to the city. Instead, it could bring the exact opposite,” Myers said. “These are people (who) are going to contribute to our community. They will live, eat, work and play in our downtown area.”
On the issue of staffing the police and fire department, Myers said he hopes to come to the council later this year to ask for an increase in both departments’ budgets to add more officers and firefighters. The city froze most departmental budgets this year due to the pandemic, but Myers said the city’s finances look better than expected.
“I’ll be the first to admit, yes, our police department and our fire department are both understaffed,” Myers said. “You councilors have been very generous over the last 10 years I’ve been in office to increase the number of firefighters and officers.”
Pendleton initially voted against the project on first reading April 19, due to concerns about the traffic study, and staffing at the police and fire departments. He was also concerned about how Greenwood Community Schools would be impacted. But since talking to Kent DeKoninck, superintendent of Greenwood schools, hearing solutions that could help with understaffing, and looking into the traffic data, he changed his mind and voted in favor of the project, he said.
DeKoninck supports the proposed project for the middle school property. The city bought the property from the district for $1.1 million in 2017.
Isom Elementary School, which would take on families who might live in those apartments, condos or townhomes, can take up to 50 more students. But the developer is projecting that most of the residents who would live in the housing on the property will not have children. So, the schools likely would not gain more than 50 additional students.
“The reason we entered into selling that property to them to begin with was we were excited that it could help be our contribution to revitalize the city,” DeKoninck said. “Second of all, we want students. As long as we have enough time to plan, we can work and make anything happen.”
Before voting on funding for the project Monday night, Pendleton said the council needs to be responsible for keeping up with the project, and its promises to hire more officers and firefighters.
Following the vote Monday night, Myers said he is excited to see the it move forward.
“I think we proved without a shadow of a doubt that we planned this project properly and thoroughly,” Myers said.