Most developers wouldn’t have touched the 1,000-acre site on the Catawba River with a 10-foot pole.
Located in northern South Carolina, the property was home to a recently vacated textile factory that left behind environmental degradation and a community struggling with unemployment from its shutdown. Hazards included 20-foot-deep lagoons filled with industrial waste, an arsenic-tainted coal storage yard, and groundwater contaminated by flammable chemicals including acetone and benzene.
But for the Assured Group of Companies, those issues weren’t deal breakers. The Cincinnati-based developer, which specializes in brownfield remediation and redevelopment, has made a name for itself repurposing property that other companies don’t want.
On the former Celanese Corp. of America site, company officials envisioned a mixed-use community of single- and multifamily housing, shops, restaurants, offices, and commercial space. The company spent $40 million in a two-year cleanup effort that included demolition of the 2.5 million-square-foot factory and remediation of the soil and groundwater.
Once the site was ready, Assured Group executives searched for home builders that would emphasize the company’s vision for a traditional neighborhood development aesthetic. They were impressed by two local production companies, Saussy Burbank and Evans Coghill. Before committing to the plan—called Riverwalk—the two builders considered how the land’s unusual history would impact buyers.
“The Celanese plant had been there for a long, long time,” says Saussy Burbank president Bob Zweier. “Some people kind of looked at it like, ‘Is it safe to build there?’”
Nevertheless, both builders were undeterred. They signed on to the project, determined to turn what could be a liability into an asset, says Evans Coghill chief marketing officer Alan Banks.
Now that the project’s first residential phases are complete, the builders are prepared for questions from potential buyers. Banks says salespeople are upfront with customers about the site’s past and explain the property’s industrial history rather than shy away from it.
“We knew buyers could be turned off if we didn’t approach this issue properly,” he says. “We talk to them about how this is a good reuse of the land and we explain the remediation process. We brag about it.”
Even so, salespeople keep a letter from the project’s engineering firm on hand to reassure wary buyers. “We show them the third-party testing that says this is a clean site, although most people just want to know that there is a process for remediation and that it was followed,” Banks says. Dave Williams, development director of the Assured Group, is also available to answer questions by phone.
“It doesn’t come up with every buyer; many buyers aren’t even aware of what was there,” adds Zweier, who notes that questions—mostly from local residents—have died down now that the project is underway.
For all of its risks, the site presents a number of impressive rewards. Its location is ideal, bordering 3 miles of riverfront property and adjacent to Rock Hill, S.C., a growing city 25 miles south of Charlotte known for its active outdoor amenities and sports tourism venues.
The project also has another thing going for it: From the beginning, city and county officials were on board with the plan, which they saw as a way to catalyze the local economy and create jobs. As the remediation got underway, the city provided the Assured Group with tax increment financing and incorporated the property into the City of Rock Hill to facilitate bond funds to install streets and utilities.
This strong public/private alliance led to a game-changing partnership with the city’s Parks, Recreation & Tourism office, regionally known for developing top-level sports facilities. On 250 acres donated by the Assured Group, the city created a world-class recreation venue that is drawing visitors and new residents alike.
The crown jewel is the newly opened Giordana Velodrome, which hosts national and international competitive cycling events on its 250-meter track. Other recreational offerings include 2.5 miles of paved riverfront trails, a kayak and canoe launch, mountain biking trails, and a 10-acre open green space. A BMX Supercross track is under construction. To date the city has invested $15 million, Williams says.
“Through this partnership we were able to offer amenities that a private developer couldn’t support on its own,” he points out. “It’s all part of the active outdoor lifestyle brand we’ve created with the project.”
Thanks to the partnership, most of the amenities were already constructed by the city or well underway before the home builders signed on to the plan—a reassuring sign during the height of the recession.
“The partnership is one of the reasons why we’re involved,” Banks explains. “The project came along as the economy was falling apart, but they were able to continue moving dirt and keep things moving.”
The riverfront location and recreational opportunities bring in visitors from all over the region, and many of them want to know more about making Riverwalk their home. Walk-in traffic to the Saussy Burbank model home is more than five times greater than that at any of its other communities, thanks to its proximity to the cycling center and walking trail—used by more than 10,000 people a month. “It’s not all qualified traffic, but it’s still really good exposure for us,” Zweier says.
Another differentiator is that the homes are certified to Environments for Living, a green building program offered by Masco Home Services, which guarantees lower-than-average heating and cooling bills. The homes also are built with strict covenants to uphold a distinctive outdoor-focused design. The guidelines address basics such as massing, porch depth, material selection, doors, windows, and color selection, says Williams.
The Saussy Burbank products are geared toward move-up buyers at multiple price points, with two-unit attached townhouses and cottages starting in the low $200s to single-family homes from the high $200s to high $300s. Sizes range from 1,662 square feet to 3,156 square feet.
Evans Coghill offers six models at Riverwalk, all developed since 2007, when the recession changed the size and shape of the firm’s floor plans. Casual dining spaces have taken the place of formal dining rooms and many buyers go for spa showers in the master bathroom instead of garden bathtubs, Banks says. About half choose first-floor master bedrooms. Prices range from $235,000 to $385,000 with square footages from 1,800 to 2,650.
All but eight of the 46 homes have been sold in phase one, which was completed in December 2011. Phase two encompasses 95 lots, with six under construction and one pre-sale, says Williams. The two builders began work in November on more townhomes that will bring a lower price point and low-maintenance living to the neighborhood. Crews from the competing-but-friendly companies worked side by side on this phase.
“It’s not a joint venture—each of us is doing our own thing and selling our own product,” Banks says. “It’s just that we both have to complement each other because we’re all on the same street.”