Editorial: Report provides valuable insight on market for downtown living

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 3, 2020

Sonyia Turner, of the N.C. School of Government, said something worth keeping top of mind and repeating when she made a presentation to the Salisbury City Council on Wednesday.

In the presentation about downtown development, which included talk of residential, retail and office space, Turner told the council that the Empire Hotel could be an important “demonstration project” for downtown living.

“Because of the amount of residential product it will be bringing, it will be important to watch just how the market responds to these units coming online,” she said. “I have not yet seen an actual dollar-per-square-foot amount listed for these apartments. … At least based on what we find in our analysis, downtown apartments are commanding around an average of $1.21 per square foot.”

The Empire Hotel, with about 62 market rate apartments, represents about half of what’s currently available downtown. Increasing downtown residential units by 50% is a major leap and will only be a net gain for all involved if the price is right — an issue with which developers have wrestled since signing agreements to redevelop the historic building. A price that’s too high means units go unfilled and a negative signal for developers with an eye on other potential projects.

Rory Dowling, a co-presenter on Tuesday, said the opposite — units being adequately filled — sends “a pretty big flare out there to other developers signaling that additional multi-family can work in downtown Salisbury.”

Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins has been an advocate for ensuring affordable housing downtown, which will be critical in ensuring that people with middle incomes can live and play in downtown as well as those with higher incomes. And it was good to hear Tuesday’s presenters say they could include some recommendations about sets the council can take to ensure that.

To be clear, affordable housing is not a code word for public housing. It means exactly what you might think: rents that can be afforded by people who earn the median income.

Right now, as Tuesday’s presentation stated, new multi-family options close to downtown are limited. One solution to ensuring affordable units might simply be incentivizing more redevelopment of downtown buildings for residential space.

But affordable units also must be a priority for the Salisbury City Council. The Empire Hotel will come with rents that fit the market and represent the major investment it takes to rehabilitate a historic structure in Salisbury, which prizes preservation. The same could be true for other projects if the council doesn’t find ways to defray costs, in a similar manner to tax rebates for new businesses that come to town.

The council and city staff have a number of important issues on which their attention is focused, but adding residential space downtown must remain near the top of the conversation because of the additional vitality it can add to the city’s core. Just as developers must get an equation right to make rents attractive, the city must balance its own equation.