by Jeff Sykes | @jeffreysykes

A major new shopping center planned for the outskirts of East Greensboro has the potential to fuse two of the most important trends happening in the city into more than just another retail spot.

The planned Willowlake Towne Center sits at the corner of Willowlake and Burlington roads, just next to where I-840 is creeping north toward US 29. Construction crews in several locations are working to complete the last two sections of Painter Boulevard, a 44-mile urban loop that will improve connectivity and open up swaths of northeast Greensboro to potential commercial and residential development.

All the way down at city hall, elected officials and city planners have met for more than a year now in the East Greensboro Study Committee, examining ways to bring more economic activity and an improved quality of life to an area often overlooked by commercial developers. While tension exists between the needs of the established core of East Greensboro and the idea of development along the outer edge, there is a vision of Willowlake Towne Center being the first building block in a zone that brings jobs, retail opportunities and increased population to the city’s northeast side.

Developer Marty Kotis often wins praise for his creative business ideas and his willingness to take risks. He’s rehabilitated aging shopping centers, and created innovative food and beverage notions such as Darryl’s, Pig Pounder Brewery, Marshall Free House and the recent Burger Warfare. But the vision to step out first on the city’s east side could be his boldest step yet.

Kotis recently received rezoning approval for 24.3 acres of undeveloped land tucked neatly beside where crews are extending I-840 north from its current terminus at Burlington Road. In addition to the 26,000 cars that come in and out of Greensboro on the existing roadway, also known as US 70, Kotis sees major potential for commercial activity there due to what will inevitably be a much larger traffic volume once the urban loop is complete. The property was rezoned from County Conditional – Shopping Center to Conditional District – Commercial High. Kotis is also requesting voluntary annexation for the parcel into the Greensboro city limits. That petition is on the city council’s next agenda, tentatively set for Wednesday night due to inclement weather in the Triad this week.

All around the parcel is undeveloped agricultural land, with a scattering of single-family housing to the west. The city’s future land use plan, Connections 2025, designates the area as suitable for Industrial/ Corporate Park, Mixed Use Commercial, and Mixed Use Corporate Park, meaning a high volume retail center is consistent with the area.

Kotis said that the development will be a regional shopping center with a footprint of about 250,000 square feet. He has letters of intent from a couple of initial tenants, but declined to identify them at this time. The city’s transportation impact analysis, a document included with the rezoning petition, describes outparcels having a convenience market/gas station with 14 fueling positions, a drive-in bank and 12,000 square feet of general office. Another 179,000 square feet of shopping center is anticipated.

Kotis said the development will ultimately include a grocery store, hardware store, restaurant and other general retail.

“It will wind up being the eastern node of retail development in the city,” Kotis said. “What we expect to happen is for additional properties that we don’t own to be developed by others, up to 750,000 square feet.”

Kotis is paying to have water and sewer run to the development, which is in close proximity to existing city infrastructure. He secured a reimbursement agreement from the city in August 2014 that will repay him about $359,000 for the water and sewer extension.

As I-840 creeps north, so too should significant economic development. Assistant City Manager David Parrish said during a recent meeting of the city’s East Greensboro Study Committee that much of the city’s prime real estate for commercial development is on the city’s east side. Connectivity to I-40 and I-85 via the urban loop could put the area on the radar for development.

Kotis pointed out that urban loops, in general, precede office, retail and industrial development because they make it convenient for people to get there from outlying cities. Development along the urban loop in northeast Greensboro means job and population growth.

For northeast Greensboro, that means people from Danville, Virginia, Reidsville and Burlington have an easier time commuting to potential new jobs. Increased traffic along the urban loop could also negate one of biggest barriers to commercial development in East Greensboro, Kotis said.

East Greensboro has traditionally lacked income levels that are attractive to commercial developers. A retailer needs customers, Kotis said, and if income levels don’t support potential growth, that can be overcome if the area has high traffic counts.

“Where they might not have gotten a Target or a Home Depot or a Harris Teeter previously, they are more likely to get it because they have so many people coming through the area,” Kotis said. “When we start talking about East Greensboro and how to improve it, every plan has to focus on capturing those visitors that are driving through the area in addition to the people who live there.”

East Greensboro is no stranger to this problem.

Lack of retail and grocery shops is a major complaint of residents. The city recently attempted to attract retailers into available property near Willow Oaks, in the heart of the east side, but had to cancel the request for proposal due to a lack of interest.

Other residents are taking matters into their own hands, such as the Renaissance Community Co-Op project, a proposed community-owned grocery store that is a major part of a shopping center redevelopment along Phillips Avenue. Supporters have raised more than $1.1 million toward the $1.7 million needed to open the store.

When the reimbursement agreement for water and sewer was before council last year, some expressed concern that development along the outer loop might hamper the drive to improve commercial activity in the established sections of East Greensboro. District 2 city council member Jamal Fox, who represents the Phillips Avenue area and most of the area in proximity to the section of the urban loop between US 70 and US 29, said he understands those concerns. Fox, however, believes both trends will work in conjunction with each other.

“I do see where people are saying that it may draw out there beyond the outskirts, but you’re talking about having investment on the beltline, right there where the urban loop is,” Fox said. “You will have people from our community, hopefully, that will be getting those jobs and bringing some of that investment back into the community. It’s going to work hand in hand.”

Fox said there are a handful of other development projects being discussed for the beltline area. The city’s Promise Zone application with the federal government could boost interest, as could an investment corridor mentioned at the East Greensboro Study Committee and by council member Zack Matheny, who heads the council’s economic development committee. There is discussion of an 8/80 incentive zone, that would extend from three to eight years the opportunity companies have to pay back economic development incentives if they invest in key areas.

Matheny explained the concept last week at a city council work session, saying a northeast investment corridor was part of a comprehensive economic development plan for Greensboro that puts focus on the airport, filling existing industrial and commercial space, and opening up new areas of industrial and commercial development along the urban loop.

Fox said the urban loop in northeast would be a “great opportunity for investment, period.”

“It’s a great opportunity for developers, folks looking to develop retail shops,” Fox said. “What we’re hoping is that not only commercial and retail shops come out there, but that we also get rooftops. If you have more rooftops, businesses will be more open to moving to that area.” !