Don’t expect Phenix City riverfront development to happen quickly

W.C. Bradley Co. owns this piece of prime Phenix City riverfront property.
W.C. Bradley Co. owns this piece of prime Phenix City riverfront property.

The W.C. Bradley Co. will take a long-term approach to development of the Phenix City riverfront, according to Real Estate Division President Mat Swift.

As work on Whitewater Avenue wraps up in the coming weeks, there will be community pressure on the Columbus-based company to begin to develop and redevelop the prime real estate it owns between the 13th and 14th Street bridges.

But it won’t happen quickly, Swift said on Tuesday.

“I understand that everybody would love to go ahead and start,” Swift said. “... It is in the best interest of the Bradley Co. and Phenix City to do this right. To throw up a couple of buildings on the river not tied to several acres behind it is not in the best interest of the city or the Bradley Co.”

In early 2013, the W.C. Bradley Co. purchased Phenix Plaza shopping center for $4.5 million. The acquisition of the 100,000-square-foot complex from Montgomery, Ala.-based real-estate firm Aronov was the W.C. Bradley’s first major move on the Phenix City side of the Chattahoochee River. In 2014, W.C. Bradley doubled down and acquired nearly 1.5 acres of riverfront property between the 13th and 14th Street bridges, creating a larger tract and more options.

Whitewater Avenue, which has been under construction for more than a year, splits the properties. The plan is to redevelop the two pieces as one with residential, retail and restaurants, Swift said.

Phenix City Mayor Eddie Lowe said he understands W.C. Bradley’s approach. He said the city, which has pumped $3.24 million into the street improvements and another $2.8 million into an adjacent parking deck, remains a committed partner.

“You have to do it right the first time,” Lowe said on Tuesday. “It is mission critical that we did this right the first time. ... You can always do things quickly and if it doesn’t turn out well, then there will be pressure.”

Swift said he could have already put two restaurants on the riverfront, but that would not have been the smart play.

“We have already turned down several restaurants,” Swift said. “That would not have been the right thing to do long-term.”

One of the issues that is causing a more deliberate approach is the long-term Phenix Plaza leases that were in place when W.C. Bradley acquired the property.

“We have the same problem we have had from the beginning,” Swift said. “Family Dollar and Citi Trends all have long-term leases of five to seven years. Our difficulty in trying to develop that to the maximum potential is we will have to tear down part of Whitewater Express and Family Dollar to have the plan on the north side and south side work together.”

W.C. Bradley has started demolition on parts of the plaza and an out building, but is limited due to the leases. The short-term solution is to allow the city access to the riverfront parcel for festivals, events, food trucks and other passive options, Swift said.

“We have an opportunity to activate the riverfront and that is what we plan to do,” Swift said.

Phenix City Finance Director Steve Smith said the city would like to see immediate development results, and W.C. Bradley officials have been upfront about the plans.

“They have a long history of successful developments and they are great partners,” Smith said. “I agree that it is more important that it is done right than it be done quickly. They have told us that from the very beginning, so it is nothing new.”

W.C. Bradley, a private company headquartered in downtown Columbus, already is investing heavily on the Georgia side. It has pumped millions of dollars into the Eagle & Phenix development, turning a former brick textile mill into loft condominiums and apartments, with restaurants, retail and office space to be part of the mix.

The Phenix City investment started in 2013 just as the Chattahoochee whitewater rafting course was preparing to open. W.C. Bradley was a driving force and major financial contributor to breach two downtown dams and create a 2.5-mile urban whitewater course.

Chuck Williams: 706-571-8510, @chuckwilliams