Makeover Mile: Could Laurens Road become the city’s newest redevelopment success story?

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Illustration by Alice Ratterree

Laurens Road’s success as one of Greenville’s leading commercial corridors once rested on the automotive industry and big-box stores. But as automotive dealerships merged and big-box stores left, the state highway’s significance in Greenville’s commercial landscape plummeted.

While it may not look like it yet to motorists, Laurens Road is once again becoming a hot spot all the way from Interstate 85 and the Motor Mile to Washington Street and Interstate 385 — interest that Greenville Mayor Knox White said will turn the area into one of the city’s biggest redevelopment success stories.

Much of the interest comes because of the proposed expansion of the Greenville Health System Swamp Rabbit Trail along Laurens Road and across Haywood Road. The GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail is largely responsible for the revitalization of Travelers Rest.

On the end of Laurens Road closest to downtown, a once dilapidated feed-and-seed built in 1934 transformed into the wildly popular modern cantina Willy Taco. The revamp, which carried a seven-figure price tag, “sets the standard for what the area could look like,” White said.

“It’s a good marker of what could happen in that area of Laurens Road,” he said. “In a decade, that section might look like our Travelers Rest.”

On the other end, the Verdae development is in the beginning stages of a $100 million project, a site bordered by Woodruff Road, Verdae Boulevard, and Laurens Road that includes the former Sam’s Club and Best Buy sites.

The development will mark a change in commercial design for the strip. Instead of having buildings recessed away from the road behind vast parking lots like the prominent car dealerships on Greenville’s Motor Mile and the big-box stores it will replace, Verdae’s development has frontage directly on the road.

The development will also connect residential areas to more shopping and recreation activities.

In the middle is Laurens Village, McCall Capital’s redevelopment of the former Department of Motor Vehicles facility at Laurens and Pleasantburg roads. That site also at one time housed the state Department of Transportation and the Highway Patrol. McCall closed on the land a couple of months ago.

“Laurens Road is being transformed,” said Marcus McCall, president of McCall Capital, developer of Laurens Village. “I see it as having a lot of niche development, unique retail, not big boxes, providing retail for local residents. I see something like Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward along their beltway where you have mixed uses.”

Red-hot to stone cold

Over the years, Laurens Road has been one of Greenville’s biggest commercial corridors.

In 2001, the Motor Mile portion of Laurens Road recorded $771,653,302 in total gross sales, second only to downtown’s $928,220,914. The northern part of Laurens Road, home to much smaller businesses, contributed another $228,255,095.

By 2010, when Greenville and the rest of the country were in the throes of the Great Recession, total gross sales for the Motor Mile stretch had plummeted to $379,003,256. The other end of Laurens produced $196,534,703 in gross sales. Tracy Ramseur, a development coordinator for the city’s economic development department, blamed the fall on the consolidation of auto dealerships and the relocation or closure of several big-box stores such as Sam’s Wholesale Club, Best Buy, and Goody’s.

Fast-forward to 2016.

Total gross sales for the Motor Mile section jumped to $847,765,814, a significant increase over the nearly $676 million in sales just two years earlier. “It’s so good to see the auto dealerships doing well. They upgraded their facilities over the past years,” Ramseur said. “Every city needs a Motor Mile.” Laurens Road North’s gross sales rose to more than $230 million, a $24 million increase over 2014.

“It’s the same pattern we’ve seen in any of our corridors. It’s cyclical,” Ramseur said. “Laurens Road is the ideal place for growth because of its location.” Ramseur cites the street’s proximity to downtown and Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research.

“Laurens Road is certainly an area with the capacity for growth,” said Debbie Wallace, vice president of Verdae Development.

For years, development in the Pleasantburg area of Laurens has been stymied because of a lack of sewer capacity. Through a development agreement with the city, McCall Capital is building a sewer line that will serve its Laurens Village project, as well as the surrounding area. As a result, it will allow additional growth.

Verdae’s best piece of land — an 80-acre parcel bordered by Interstate 85, Laurens Road, and the GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail — remains undeveloped. The land, known as Bonaventure, is the crown jewel of the Verdae Master Plan because of its interstate frontage, Wallace said.

The property will be one of the last pieces developed, in part because it will impact Laurens Road and the Interstate 85 interchange. Verdae, the City of Greenville, and the state Department of Transportation are working to come up with a plan, Wallace said.

Wallace said Bonaventure could have shopping, office space, a hotel, and recreation offerings. “It really will be a special place,” she said, “that could hold up to the bigger projects in Atlanta and Charlotte.”

Trail crossing

Much of the redevelopment interest near downtown Greenville is generated by the imminent expansion of the Swamp Rabbit Trail. A 4.5-mile extension is planned and will mostly follow an abandoned rail line along Laurens Road.

The trail will cross Laurens Road, Haywood Road, and Verdae Boulevard. Bridges will be built across Laurens and Haywood so trail users won’t have to navigate those busy roads. The exact location of the bridges has yet to be determined.

“We’re already starting to see interest from investors and businesses who want to be near the trail. Surprisingly, not all of the businesses are the kind you’d necessarily think of as businesses that would benefit from being on the trail. The other day, I talked to somebody looking for a place for a computer repair business,” Greenville development coordinator Ramseur said. Ramseur added that the Laurens Road properties that will generate the most interest are those near crossings and areas where potential spurs will make it easy to connect to the trail.

One major Laurens Road hurdle: how to make all those new businesses and amenities accessible by foot to nearby residents.

“The biggest challenge on Laurens Road is the road itself,” Ramseur said. “The nature of the road is going to make it difficult to make it walkable, especially in the northern area.

Laurens Road is a state highway, meaning the city does not control where streetscapes, road diets, and center medians can be done, Ramseur said. The road also has a lot of curb cuts.

“It’s typical of a suburban development pattern where you have drive after drive,” she said.

The city hopes with the renewed interest in Laurens Road, developers will either acquire several pieces of property and combine them or work with adjacent property owners to close some of the curb cuts, Ramseur said.

“Laurens Road is strong,” she said.

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