Home Decor – Brandon Mill sparks changes in The Village of West Greenville
In a 1939 photograph of Brandon Mill, the only thing that separates the mill from its village is a tiny strip of unpaved service road.
A large, commercial-style brick building lined with hundreds of windows dominates the 9½-acre site. Black smoke billows from a smokestack standing tall above a small pond. Nearby lies a well-worn community baseball field.
So much remains today. The smokestack still looms. The baseball field is now a park that memorializes Joe Jackson, who played for the mill’s baseball team before he went on to Major League fame and infamy.
The brick building stands, transformed into luxury residential lofts in 2016.
But there is something new in the landscape. The road is lined with fences.
These days, the walls around the homes of Brandon Mill are fortified.
In 2016, shortly after West Village Lofts at Brandon Mill opened, someone stole a luxury Ducati motorcycle out of the parking lot.
Since then, the property manager locks the gates.
Mandy Blankenship, copresident of the Brandon Community Association, which represents local residents, calls Brandon Mill “historically the heartbeat of this area.”
But today, Brandon Mill operates like a silo — partly due to the monolithic nature of the residential building, partly because of the fence that separates it from the Brandon community, Blankenship said.
“There’s almost no connection between residents of the mill and the residents of the neighborhood,” Blankenship said.
The Blankenships, who came to Greenville in 2012, moved into West Village Lofts in 2016 with the early bird special. Only half of the newly renovated building was habitable. Fire-alarm tests shrilled almost constantly overhead. The pool was just a dirt pit.
Redeveloping the site meant orchestrating 435,000 square feet, nine-plus acres and $25 million — a feat that developer Pace Burt decided to tackle in 2014, helping spur West Greenville’s larger transformation from economically distressed community to trendy arts hub.
But projects like Brandon Mill raise a familiar question for longstanding communities on former mill hills.
How do you revitalize a neighborhood without pushing out the people who are already there?
Efforts to revive an area aren’t a bad thing, said Tammie Hoy-Hawkins, CEO of CommunityWorks, a nonprofit organization that provides financial resources to underserved communities.
“It brings new asset-building opportunities and economic-development opportunities and, typically, access to amenities that weren’t there before,” she said.
Think places like grocery stores, new restaurants, new businesses.
But in the process, you run the risk of unraveling the cultural fabric that binds a neighborhood together.
That fabric is composed of diversity and longstanding cultural aspects of the community, whether it’s neighborhood traditions or specific places that change, Hoy-Hawkins said.
“We don’t really want to lose the fabric of what that neighborhood has been or could be,” she said.
That unraveling of a neighborhood sometimes goes by another name — gentrification.
Brandon Mill, a cotton mill, first opened in 1901 two miles south of downtown Greenville, along with a 66-home village that was built the year before.
Mill houses — typically one story with four rooms — were often constructed and owned by the mill company, then leased to employees. Most were rather crude, lit by kerosene lamps and heated by fireplaces, according to historical accounts.
But because Brandon Mill was “immediately successful,” according to Greenville historian Judith Bainbridge, the community flourished, too.
Mill homes eventually had plumbing, electricity and space for backyard gardens. There were multiple churches and an elementary school.
Baseball star and local legend “Shoeless” Joe Jackson brought acclaim. Though he eventually became embroiled in the “Black Sox” scandal involving gambling and was controversially banished from the sport and its Hall of Fame, to this day he is considered by many to be among the greatest players and best hitters to have ever played.
But like so many other nearby mills, Brandon Mill began to decline due to advances in technology and overseas competition.
When the federal government passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, big mill companies had no desire to enforce desegregation, said historian Don Koonce. They tore down community-use buildings like community centers, schools and grocery stores that had sustained their villages for years.
It was a blow for self-sustaining communities like Brandon.
After closing in 1977, the mill complex was put to use as a warehouse until 2014, when Burt — a Georgia developer who had turned Monaghan Mill into an apartment complex along the Swamp Rabbit Trail — paid $1.9 million to try his hand at the site.
When Burt started the project, West Greenville was “a ghost town.”
“It’s just done phenomenal since,” Burt said.
Burt turned the mill into luxury residential lofts and donated space for a nonprofit “art incubator,” where the Greenville Center for Creative Arts offered classes, exhibitions, community events and First Friday art crawls.
Now, the mill property is worth almost $39 million, according to county property records.
Bounded by Pendleton Street to the north and Easley Bridge Road to the south, the Brandon community also found new life. Renewed attention from developers, community leaders and the city ushered in new residents, businesses and art studios in West Greenville.
“We have a very diverse neighborhood now,” said the Rev. Vardrey Fleming, president of the West Greenville Neighborhood Association. “Things have changed socially and economically, too.”
In efforts to foster revitalization in the area, the city began allocating $100,000 annually to add amenities on major roads such as Pendleton Street — amenities such as street lights with banners, landscaping and crosswalks.
In 2018, as Brandon Mill changed hands from Burt to California-based Brookline Investment Group — the same developer that owns the 400 Rhett apartment complex in the West End — GCCA purchased the building it had been using since 2015 for $1.2 million. Brookline also donated an additional building on the property to GCCA for more studio space.
New venues like Dr. Mac Arnold’s Blues Restaurant brought a new space for music and food through a restaurant named after the famous Upstate blues artist.
The Blankenships watched as gentrification on Pendleton Street bled slowly into nearby neighborhoods.
They see young families and young professionals moving in nearby, purchasing homes to flip or rent out. Many of them don’t engage with the surrounding community, Blankenship said.
“It’s just about their little piece of the pie,” Blankenship said.
“From this economic revitalization vibe of the mill village, I think (Brandon) is super successful,” she said. “But it is mostly outside traffic.”
Ian Thompson and his fiancé, Melissa Burkhamer, bought a house on Draper Street in August 2020, just a stone’s throw away from the mill.
What began as an outing to get pizza on Pendleton Street turned into a relocation for the couple when they saw a Zillow listing for the house. They were drawn to West Greenville’s walkability and potential, Thompson said.
“It’s an up-and-coming area,” he said.
They bought the home from a real-estate agent who had previously flipped it and was renting it out, Thompson said.
The one thing that’s lacking is a sense of community, Thompson said. Aside from some friends who live in the lofts, he and Burkhamer don’t really know their neighbors.
More development would change that, he thinks. It would make the area safer, and people would be more likely to spend time in the neighborhood.
Crime has held steady since the mill was redeveloped. In 2015, there were 48 reports of robbery and theft and 44 assaults within a half-mile of Brandon Mill, according to the LexisNexis community crime map. In 2020, there were 58 reports of robbery and theft and 29 assaults.
The Greenville County Sheriff’s Office handled 23,645 calls for service in the area last year, slightly higher than average compared to the rest of Greenville County.
Gentrification and development aren’t bad, Thompson thinks.
“I’m in favor of it. That’s something we would love to see as young homeowners,” he said at his home on April 9.
Brandon Mill is just one of Greenville’s nearby mill hills to undergo development. In the early 1900s, the peak of the textile industry in the Upstate, there were 18 mills within three miles of downtown Greenville.
When revitalization projects like Brandon Mill get underway, they often drive up nearby property values, which can raise rent, said Doug Dent, CEO of Greenville Revitalization Corporation, a nonprofit economic-development organization that works in former mill villages.
The News analyzed nearly a decade of Brandon property records and found the average fair-market value of homes in the neigh increased 6.9% from 2011 to 2020 compared to the city at large, which saw a 25% increase, according to data aggregated by Zillow, a real estate marketplace website.
The first apartments opened in West Village Lofts in 2016.
“It definitely does increase surrounding property values over time, but it might not do so immediately,” Dent said.
While the values have limitations — they don’t account for scenarios where one family member might sell their property to another valued at $1, for example — the numbers are in line with what residents are seeing in their neighborhoods.
“Success breeds success,” developer Pace Burt said. “Once people see these projects are bringing in market-rate tenants, then they tend to gravitate toward those areas when we move in. As we move in, you see crime rates go down, property values go up, home ownership go up. So those are a lot of things that kind of spin off of these multimillion-dollar renovations.”
Rising property values aren’t always a bad thing for homeowners, Dent said. They’re left with a high-value asset they can pass down or sell.
But for renters who want to afford to stay in the area, rising property values can push them out.
Research shows that low-income residents who are pushed out by rising rent prices migrate outside the city. Historically, they’ve moved west of White Horse Road, north of Cherrydale and near Haywood Mall, according to a 2019 gentrification study by Furman University and the United Way.
For Brandon residents who are rent-burdened — categorized as households who spend more than 30% of their income on rent — displacement is an all-too-real threat.
Two-bedroom houses in the area rent for about $1,070 on average, according to the rent aggerating website rentometer.com.
That’s a steep price for some in Brandon, a blend of young families, older residents and single renters with a median household income of $24,748 to $44,387, according to a 2015 Brandon community plan.
Some rely on Section 8 vouchers, where public housing agencies pay landlords a portion on an underprivileged family’s behalf. The family is then responsible for the difference, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The area’s rising rent prices are not lost on Vardrey Fleming, who has spent 40 years partnering his church, Bethel Bible Missionary Church, with local nonprofits to create affordable housing.
“It has affected the ability of low-income people to live in West Greenville, unless they have Section 8 vouchers,” Fleming said.
Duplexes and apartment buildings have also cropped up as developers continue to invest in the area, Fleming said.
Apartments like The West Village Lofts, which boast spacious floor plans and luxury features, are tucked away behind gates.
The black metal fence is sleek and inconspicuous.
But it sends a message: “Stay out.”
Where Brandon Mill was once the heartbeat of the neighborhood, now it’s a private island.
While Burt understands the message that the gates send, “even if I was in downtown Greenville, I’d want to have some sort of security for the residents that live there,” he said.
“I don’t find that as a valid concern from the residents,” Burt said. “Ultimately, out of all my projects, Brandon was probably more accessible than the other ones.”
How can communities like Brandon reconcile a sense of separation?
Growth is good, but it’s all about balance, said Hoy-Hawkins, CEO of CommunityWorks.
“It’s making sure that it’s not just the developer that’s participating, the government that’s participating, but that there’s some intentional focus on neighborhood engagement,” she said.
It’s important to understand what resources the community has — grocery stores, recreation space, small businesses — and what it still needs, she said.
“In some cases, that redevelopment can bring redevelopment that everyone can benefit from. But that takes intentionality,” she said.
Practical steps include prioritizing affordable housing and safeguarding mom-and-pop spaces and minority-owned businesses.
Finding ways to keep space affordable for those businesses is key in case property values skyrocket, Hoy-Hawkins said.
Meeting these goals involves multiple partners.
Nonprofits like CommunityWorks provide financial education and home purchase assistance throughout Greenville County.
United Way runs Greenville Dreams, offering grassroots leadership training and neighborhood grants to a network of neighborhood-association presidents in low-income neighborhoods.
Charities like The Salvation Army and Daily Bread Ministries provide housing services, homeless services and hunger relief.
Local government is also a stakeholder. The city and county of Greenville joined together to launch the Greenville Housing Fund, a coalition of housing services, that aims to preserve and create affordable housing in Greenville County.
The Greenville County Redevelopment Authority provides affordable housing and offers grant and loan programs for businesses.
For neighborhoods like Brandon to endure, these efforts are not one-and-done, Hoy-Hawkins said.
When she looks around at what’s going on in Brandon, Blankenship feels torn.
“Is gentrification all bad? No,” she said.
“Is it all good? No.”
Macon Atkinson covers the city of Greenville for The Greenville News. She’s powered by strong coffee, long runs and good sunsets. You can find her on Twitter @maconatkinson.
Home Decor – Brandon Mill sparks changes in The Village of West Greenville
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