by Jeff Sykes

Union Square Campus scales back plans for first facility | @jeffreysykes

A financial hiccup caused when one of the partner institutions couldn’t commit to full investment in the Union Square Campus has caused project boosters to change their initial construction plans.

The first building of the proposed healthcare education facility was just unveiled in late summer, with a meeting held Sept. 30 at Bennett College to build public awareness. The joint campus is supposed to be a partnership between UNC-Greensboro, NC A&T State University, Guilford Technical Community College and Cone Health. Plans are to provide a hi-tech nurse training facility, complete with a simulation lab to provide hands on training.

Initial plans called for the partner institutions to occupy a set level of square footage in the facility, which was planned for the intersection of Elm and Lee streets in what master developers say is the most important corner in the larger South Elm redevelopment project. The reported plans called for a four-story, 110,00 square foot facility with ground floor retail.

First hints at a shift in direction surfaced when Opportunity Greensboro’s Ed Kitchen appeared at a city council work session late last month to pitch the idea of the city donating two-acres of land to the project at no cost. His slide presentation described a three-floor building, estimated at between 80-90,000 square feet, with an estimated construction cost of $35 million.

Sources indicate that GTCC was unable to meet their initial commitment, but has since agreed to lease a smaller footprint in the facility.

City council gave tacit approval of the land transfer idea, but left it to the Redevelopment Commission of Greensboro to seal the deal. That came as a surprise to a somewhat befuddled RCG when they met last week. The commission was asked to call a special meeting for Nov. 19 in order to approve the plans, leaving enough time for city council to vote on the matter Dec. 2.

The South Elm redevelopment is cited by many backers for its potential to transform the area of South Elm and Lee streets at the very edge of Greensboro’s downtown. The site is near the completed Southside redevelopment, and its position at the bottom of Elm Street’s downtown section makes it a prime spot to have a major impact on the city’s future.

Opportunity Greensboro, a consortium of business and higher education leaders, selected the site for its downtown campus concept in late 2013. The idea has since evolved into the Union Square Campus. Plans call for the education component to occupy two acres of the larger seven acre site, which itself is being managed by the South Elm Development Group.

SEDG has the master development agreement with the city, and so Union Square’s need to change direction caused several procedural headaches for city staff, and required extensive explanation to the members of the redevelopment commission.

The largest hurdle is how the city will pay back a $3 million federal loan used to acquire the land. Plans had been to sell the land for about $450,000 per acre as the project evolved and components developed.

Dyan Arkin, one of the city’s senior planners, told commission members that the loan might now be paid back with future Community Development Block Grant funds as opposed to revenues from land sales.

Commission member Clinton Gravely expressed concern about the move.

“It seems like that impacts some of the things that we’ve been trying to do all along as far as the overall project,” Gravely said. “We’ve been discussing incentives and everything else, and then the city council comes up and does this. It seems like it impacts some of our development decisions.”

The commission retains oversight of the project, Arkin said, but the transfer of the land would be a council level decision. Commission members seemed to understand that they were being directed to clear the way for a city council vote.

“The fact that it is on redevelopment commission land is a separate issue from what USCI has requested that the city provide in order to help them facilitate completion of this project,” Arkin said. “They essentially made these requests to the city. It isn’t something the commission would have to decide on or weigh in on. If the city agrees to grant those things, then the city will be funding those things.”

Commission member Robert Enochs seemed concerned that giving the land for free would create a precedent for the rest of the project. Before the conversation could spin into deeper levels of concern, the commission’s attorney, Jim Blackwood, sought to provide reassurance.

He reminded the commission that one of the stipulations in the land transfer would be Union Square’s commitment to build the facility.

“That’s their promise, that they are going to do that, which is a substantial investment down there on what is basically seven acres of vacant land at the moment,” Blackwood said.

Arkin showed the new site plan, which was the first commission members had heard about the first building being moved from Lee and Elm streets to the corner of Lee and Arlington streets. The land transfer proposal would give USCI about one acre to build the first building, with an option for the second acre at the corner of Lee and Elm streets.

This caused some concern about USCI’s ability to raise money to build at the primary corner.

“That’s a crucial spot right there and you don’t want something that is diminished in the way it looks vis a vis what is located somewhere else of the lot,” said commission member Charles McQueary. “You want that location to be the prime looking piece.”

Commission members seemed concerned about the switch in location, but seemed to have those concerns eased by the end of the meeting.

“At this point, since there’s been zero construction, do we have any interest other than the University Square on that corner,” asked commission chair Dawn Chaney.

SEDG’s Bob Chapman said that in recent weeks they’ve fielded inquiries from an apartment developer from Cleveland, Ohio who has met with several key staff members at city hall. A Greensboro-based hotelier who is currently building a hotel downtown has also expressed interest. The overall master development agreement calls for housing, retail, a hotel and two parking decks with 1100 total spaces.

Chapman assured the commission members that the university campus was still the best concept for the site.

“We worked really hard to recruit them,” Chapman said. “I think it’s really part of the creative location, to have that kind of 24-hour activity on the site from a very reputable institution and a lot of people coming in and out. I think it’s going to be a great boost for the long-term development of the project.” !