‘Superblock’ nears completion — The Daily Reflector

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Published: April 13, 2014

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‘Superblock’ nears completion

By Abbie Bennett, The Daily Reflector

A private developer, with the help of East Carolina University, is transforming one block of Greenville’s downtown into what some are calling the “Superblock.”

Uptown Greenville Director Bianca Shoneman coined the name for the collection of properties at the corner of E. Fifth and Cotanche streets, but it has been picked up by city staff, members of the project’s team and others.

Even Holton Wilkerson, managing partner for the Raleigh-based real estate firm heading up the project, CommunitySmith, said he is excited about the name.

“For a while there, we were a little hesitant, because you never know how things like this might go,” Wilkerson said. “But we’re starting to see the light at the end.”

CommunitySmith specializes in adaptive re-use and redevelopment, historic preservation and downtown revitalization through public-private partnerships. The Greenville Superblock of new office and retail space represents an investment of about $2 million.

 

Digging deep

Wilkerson took a Daily Reflector reporter and photographer through the Superblock, roughly 20,000 square feet encompassing 201-205 E. Fifth Street, 207 E. Fifth Street and 417 Cotanche Street. Construction work almost entirely gutted each building, leaving just brick walls, struts and hardwood floors the team will try to preserve. Now they are going to build each location back up for some interested potential tenants.

The brick of the buildings lays beneath decades of layers of paint, plaster and other coverings and now has been revealed. Bricked up windows are being cleared, walls have been torn down and each property is like an empty shell, waiting to be re-imagined.

Now that the windows are clear and the walls that partitioned the inside of the buildings into different sections have been torn down, Wilkerson said the buildings look much larger inside than they did.

“All this light and space makes a difference,” Wilkerson said. “It lets you imagine what these places could really be like.”

Construction crews worked outside and in, carrying lumber and other supplies to begin rebuilding structures originally constructed in the mid 1910s to the early 1920s.

An elevator is part of the project, and will service the second floors of 417 Cotanche and 207 E. Fifth streets, and eventually 209 E. Fifth Street.

The city’s Redevelopment Commission also is redeveloping the alley behind the Superblock, which will remain closed to traffic.

Ladders leading up to second floors in some of the spaces reveal space previously used for storage and duct work — space Wilkerson said was wasted.

“You couldn’t do much up here without some work,” he said. “But there’s so much space, you could have office space up here and restaurant or retail downstairs like you see in other urban settings.”

Chris Grubbs, with Winston-Salem-based Rehab Builders Inc., said the upper floors of the buildings were uninhabitable, which likely is why they only were used for storage and the duct work for the air conditioning and heating of the buildings.

All that has been cleared now, making room for new leasable space not previously available.

 

Starting over

Wilkerson said he and his team, as well as their partners at ECU and the city, are excited about how the Superblock will help in the revitalization efforts downtown. Some with the project credit East Carolina University’s interest in expanding into downtown Greenville as the catalyst for the project and will draw others downtown.

While many of the spaces have yet to be officially leased, ECU already has committed to leasing all 8,000 square feet of the two-story 207 E. Fifth building for its Office of the Registrar. Wilkerson and others involved in the project said it is ECU’s commitment to moving the registrar and possibly some other administrative offices that serves as an anchor for the entire project.

“If we didn’t have ECU definitely coming in, this might be a little different,” Wilkerson said. “Having them sign a lease has really given the whole project more confidence. It’s a big deal, taking them off campus. We’ll have more foot traffic and there are ideas to make the block a hub of student activity, the welcome mat of the university.”

Campus Corner, a men’s clothing store, has signed a lease for 1,000 square feet in a retail bay at 201 E. Fifth Street.

Leases or proposals being negotiated include an insurance company for the entire floor at 417 Cotanche St., Wilkerson said, as well as the Convention and Visitor’s Authority actively looking into a space in the Superblock. Wilkerson said these still are up in the air, but he and the team are hopeful that deals will be solidified soon.

Single-story retail bays at 201-205 E. Fifth Street will be completed and ready for turnover to tenants this summer, with June 1 as the target date to allow Campus Corner to move in at 201 E. Fifth Street. No opening date has been set for the store, however. The building at 417 Cotanche Street likely will be ready to house ECU’s Office of the Registrar in October or November, about the same time the rest of the block will be finished up.

 

A long history

The properties that make up the Superblock were not ones with the best reputations in the city, even those involved with the project have admitted that. Previous homes to now defunct clubs and bars like The Other Place, Expressions and Rumors, the businesses often were criticized and accused of attracting crime to the city’s downtown.

Economic Development Officer Carl Rees said he believes the buildings have been different bars or nightclubs since the 1960s. But that long history of college nightlife is evolving into downtown businesses that will relocate jobs and potentially create additional jobs for the area.

The building at 417 Cotanche St. first appeared on a 1916 map, according to historic preservation documents filed for the property. The four storefronts housed a barber, clothes cleaning, office and restaurant. The first floor spaces since have been combined into a single space, most recently a nightclub.

The front of the building, according to the historic preservation documents, is typical of early 1920s commercial architecture, featuring distinctive brickwork and cast concrete detailing on the facade. While the storefronts have been altered, the rear building retained distinctive arched brick openings at the second-floor level and brick corbelling on the cornice.

The building at 201-205 E. Fifth St. appears on a 1923 map as three separate stores. The 1963 city directory lists 201 as vacant, 203 as auto service and 205 as Garris Grocery. While the businesses changed regularly over the years, the middle bay (203 E. Fifth St.) remained in use as an auto service shop into the 1950s. The building also is typical of early 1920s architecture and features distinctive brickwork and cast concrete detailing on the facade. All three bays feature replacement storefronts, the center with a Colonial Revival-style window.

The building at 207 E. Fifth St. appears on maps between 1923 and 1929. City directories from 1936 through 1951 list the building as the location of White Chevrolet. The two story, three-bay brick commercial building has some decorative brickwork, but some original features of the buildings have been replaced, like the storefront.

 

Logistics

Wilkerson said purchasing the properties from their owners, other than work on aging buildings, likely was one of the more challenging aspects of the project.

Since owners were hesitant to part with their properties, 99-year ground leases were agreed to, allowing CommunitySmith and its team to redevelop the properties and lease them to new tenants.

The properties at 201-205 E. Fifth St. and 417 Cotanche Street are owned by Myron T. Hill Jr. and have a market value of more than $300,000 total, according to Pitt County tax records.

The property at 207 E. Fifth St. is owned by Smith Wiggins, LLC and has a market value of about $272,000, according to Pitt County tax records.

No banks are involved in financing the redevelopment, Wilkerson said. Instead, funds from private investors and grants and a loan from the city have paved the way for the $2 million project, as well as funding from the leases signed thus far.

The team project was granted a $107,000 15-year zero interest loan for energy efficiency improvements. Those funds were awarded to the city from a federal energy efficiency revolving loan fund. The project also was awarded 11 facade improvement grants from the city totally more than $30.000, which are reimbursement grants paid by the city after costs are accrued.

Construction and rehabilitation of the Superblock coincides also with several other downtown Greenville development plans, including the parking deck at the corner of Fourth and Cotanche streets, a potential hotel nearby and the $42 million Taft-Ward student housing and mixed-use development taking shape on Reade Circle.

Wilkerson credited the success of the project with hard work from partners, including city staff, Mayor Allen Thomas and members of City Council as well as Uptown Greenville, ECU and private investors.

Contact Abbie Bennett at abennett@reflector.com or 252-329-9579. Follow her on Twitter @AbbieRBennett.

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Rehab Builders, Inc. Chris Grubbs, CommunitySmith’s Holton Wilkerson, center, and Don Edwards, right walk through the upstairs of the old Rumors club on Wednesday. The upstairs was an unused space that the companies are renovating as part of the Superblock project at the corner of 5th Street and Cotanche. Wednesday, April 9, 2014. (Aileen Devlin/ The Daily Reflector)

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