For years, one developer after another looked at the Montgomery Building, the once-regal 10-story office building that commands the north end of Downtown Spartanburg.

Monday, October 2, 2017

by Will Rothschild

They would walk through its historic ground-floor arcade, go up to the 10th floor and on clear days take in views all the way to the mountains of Pisgah National Forest. They would walk through the historic Carolina Theatre and think about what it would take to restore it to its former glory. Then they would dive deep into the numbers and figure out what it would cost to pull off a historic rehab project that City Hall and the community had yearned to see happen for decades.

And then one developer after another walked away.

Until James Bakker. Though no one knew it at the time, when Bakker visited Spartanburg in 2009 scouting opportunities in the higher education housing sector on behalf of the Charleston-based firm he worked for at the time, the future of the Montgomery Building — and of Downtown Spartanburg — took a turn.

It was on that trip Bakker first encountered the Montgomery Building and was wowed by its bones, its location and its history. It sparked an idea he would pursue for years, staying the course through a financial, legal and regulatory minefield that could have blown up the effort to purchase and renovate the building numerous times. Finally, earlier this year, nearly eight years after he first saw it and the first hazy pictures of what it could be flashed through his mind, Bakker completed the purchase of the Montgomery Building and started a full renovation of the structure.

It will be the second-most expensive historic preservation project in the City’s history. And only a handful of downtown developments of any kind have ever come with a higher price tag than the Montgomery Building renovation’s $29 million.

“The Montgomery Building project will be transformational for downtown and the entire community,” said Chris Story, Spartanburg’s Assistant City Manager. Structuring the development deal City Council approved last year was a crucial piece of moving Bakker’s vision to reality, and that work occupied a big chunk of Story’s time over the 18 months. “We were hopeful and spent a lot of time over many years trying to make a renovation deal for that building work, and it took a special developer to make it happen. The uses and activity that you will see in that building once it is renovated and occupied will have a dramatic stimulative impact on downtown.”

Of course, a project of this scale and significance won’t be easy to pull off. For years, a number of local developers and businessmen urged the city to condemn the building and have it demolished. Indeed, in addition to the sheer cost, the level of difficulty associated with the renovation work itself will be of a scale never seen before in Spartanburg. For Bakker, that challenge is the prize.
“Doing something that on the face of it does seem a little crazy, maybe does seem a little out there, but to be able to move forward and pull it off makes it fun. You can’t replicate that building. You just can’t. You can’t replicate the location. You can’t replicate what it means to the city. You can’t replicate all the experiences people have had in it. You can’t replicate all the history. You can’t go out and build that new. You just can’t do it.”

Four months into a renovation project that will take about 20 months to complete, the Montgomery Building is in an odd state today. It looks neither like the crumbling structure that has loomed over the northern end of downtown for years, nor like the showplace it will be when it becomes occupied by residents, office workers and diners sometime in the autumn of 2018.

Bakker’s team is having to remove the original pre-cast concrete exterior facade panels from the entire building leaving behind just the building’s original 90-year-old steel frame, which is in good shape. After decades of deterioration, those panels began to fail and pieces of the original concrete began to chip and fall off, requiring the building’s previous owner to secure the panels with temporary braces and install scaffolding to protect pedestrians on the sidewalk below.

Each panel will be exactingly recreated to look as it did when the building opened in 1924. The building will also be outfitted with replicas of its original windows, as well as its original ivory-with-green-trim color scheme. And then there’s the ground floor, a 10,000-square-foot arcade-style architectural masterpiece that will be returned to its original glory, with huge street-level windows, nearly 20-foot-high ceilings and skylit spaces.

“It’s just a very unique building,” Bakker said. “The first floor is amazing. You just don’t see anything like that — certainly we’re not building anything like that anymore.”

Bakker’s team has been working for months already to identify and sign the perfect mix of tenants for the ground-floor spaces. A restaurant will occupy the largest space, right on the corner of Church and St. John with a wall of windows wrapping virtually the entire dining room, providing interesting views of Spartanburg’s rapidly redeveloping downtown.  As such, Bakker said he has high expectations for the restaurateur that eventually leases that space, and though he’s received a number of inquiries, he will not rush into a lease agreement.

“With anything restaurant- or retail-related, you have to look at who it is and their experience,” Bakker said. “Who it is and their experience is a bigger deal than the concept. You can get a great concept, but if that person has no experience, it is going to be difficult in this case to get a deal done. Our brokers are working hard, reaching out to a lot of people. There are some cool restaurant concepts that we have seen. There are so many people doing a lot of cool things right now, but it’s a timing issue. Sometimes you catch someone in the middle of an upfit in another city and they just can’t do another one right now. I’m confident we will get the right concept and the right operator at the right time for Spartanburg.”

The second floor, meanwhile, will offer 11,600 square feet of office space. Like with the ground floor, Bakker has heard from a number of potential tenants, and Bakker is open to either leasing the entire floor to one tenant or subdividing it for as many as three or four.

Floors three through 10 will include nine apartments apiece, for a total of 72. The mix will include 24 studio (at 471 square feet), 24 one-bedroom (850-1000 square feet), and 24 two-bedroom units (1,200 to 1,500 square feet). Bakker said the monthly rents will be “within the range” of existing apartments in downtown Spartanburg today, starting at about $750-800 and rising floor-by-floor.

 While Bakker’s project addresses the 10 floors of the tower, it does not include the historic Carolina Theatre, which occupies the large structure attached to the east side of the tower. Without a viable concept identified, Bakker for now will replace the theater’s roof and do a few other things to prevent further deterioration while the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation spearheads the effort to identify a user and the funding necessary to renovate the beloved local landmark. If and when the Palmetto Trust succeeds with that work, Bakker has agreed to lease the theater for $1 a year.

“I get more questions about the theater than about anything we’re doing with the tower,” Bakker said. “The theater is very special to a lot of people here. It has some significant challenges, but if we can overcome those and bring that place back to life, it will be an amazing story.”

While a viable concept and renovation plan for the theater remains elusive at this point, few people are more bullish than Bakker on Downtown Spartanburg’s long-term prospects. He is keenly aware of the more than
$120 million in private investment that has been completed or announced downtown since 2013, the more than 150 residential units currently under development, the 98 percent occupancy rate of existing residential units, and the nearly 15 percent growth in restaurant sales downtown over the past year.

He believes several other big projects also underway downtown — including the $20-plus million AC Hotel, the $10.5 million renovation of the Aug W. Smith Building just two blocks from the Montgomery Building, and a five-story mixed-use building at the corner of West Main and Daniel Morgan that will include 30 apartments and ground-floor retail space — are game-changers.

“You need critical mass of people in a downtown, and with all these deals and projects coming, they’re going to bring that critical mass,” he said. “Some big gaps being filled in, and they are going to bring more people and attract a lot more attention. Downtown looks and feels great now, but it’s about to go to the next level. All of these projects are important on their own, but the fact they are all happening at the same time is creating a significant critical mass and buzz about Downtown Spartanburg that people are picking up on.

“A lot of people worked very hard to get Downtown Spartanburg to where it is today, and there has never been a better time to be here than now.”

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