July 10, 2013

City OK's Development of Bull Street Property

The Columbia City Council voted 4-2 Tuesday to approve an agreement that will lead to the development of the 181-acre former state mental hospital campus on Bull Street and the creation of 11,000 jobs.

Mayor Steve Benjamin
Mayor Steve Benjamin
"I'm excited about this day," Mayor Steve Benjamin said before voting began on an ordinance that awards development rights of the property to Greenville developer Bob Hughes. "This is a significant undertaking.

"But we can do it. I firmly believe in the potential and possibilities that we can do it, and we can certainly do it together."

The plan is to turn the abandoned state property into a community of homes, shops, offices, hiking trails and maybe even a baseball park.

Hughes has offered to preserve 74% of the square footage of existing structures including the iconic Babcock Building, which was once used as a lunatic asylum.

City's contribution
The city is committing to fund $31.25 million of infrastructure improvements over four development phases. In order to receive the full amount of the city's investment, Hughes must invest at least $81.25 million.

The 20-year build-out of the development is expected to support 11,000 new jobs and produce $581 million in labor income annually, according to an economic impact study conducted by Miley & Associates Inc.

Developer Bob Hughes has agreed to preserve 74% of the square footage of existing structures on the Bull Street campus,  including the iconic Babcock Building. (Photo/James T. Hammond)
Developer Bob Hughes has agreed to preserve 74% of the square footage of existing structures on the Bull Street campus,  including the iconic Babcock Building. (Photo/James T. Hammond)
The study, released by the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, estimated a total economic impact when the property is fully developed at $1.2 billion annually. The economic activity and property development would produce about $20 million in additional property taxes for local government and schools, at current tax rates.

Currently, the state-owned property is exempt from property taxes.

The city has committed to build two parking decks with a total of 1,600 spaces if Hughes meets any one of three conditions:

1. Develops 120,000 square feet of property;

2. Rehabilitates the Babcock Building;

3. Or builds a baseball stadium.

    Benjamin was joined in voting for the measure by council members Sam Davis, Brian Newman and Cameron Runyan. It was the same foursome that approved the measure after the first reading and public hearing on July 1.

    Opposition to agreement
    Council members Leona Plough and Moe Baddourah voted against the measure. Council member Tameika Isaac Devine, who opposed the development agreement on the first go-around, had to leave Monday's meeting early because of a previous commitment.

    Although she considers development of the Bull Street property to be a good opportunity, Plough fretted that the council was moving too quickly and didn't have enough answers regarding oversight of the developer's plans and where the city would get the money to invest in the project.

    "This is a sad day in the city of Columbia because of the legacy we are about to hand over to a private developer with very little oversight," Plough said. "We give them our treasures, we give them our money, we give them our resources to enable them to even go and demolish our treasures. I just am amazed that we find ourselves where we are."

    The agreement the council approved included amendments to the original document that Benjamin released in June. Those changes include:

    • Requiring that Hughes builds enough taxable property to attain the 120,000-square-foot benchmark needed before the city would build the first parking garage.
    • Offering Richland District 1 the first opportunity to operate a primary school that's built on the property.
    • Requiring Hughes to pay up to $25,000 of the costs for excavating a Civil War prisoner of war site called Camp Asylum, and place a historical market at the location.
    • Allowing real estate agents other than those picked by Hughes, to sell property on the site.
    • Requiring that the developer and city "aspire" to having a number of local, small, minority- and female-owned businesses participate in contracts associated with the project.
    • Prohibit a new baseball stadium from being built without first conducting noise and light studies and requiring that latest construction techniques be used to mitigate the effects of noise and lighting on the surrounding neighborhoods.

    Six-hour hearing
    The historic vote followed a six-hour public hearing in a packed meeting room at the Earlewood Park Community Center.

    More than 120 people squeezed into the room, many of them standing shoulder-to-shoulder, lining the walls while 60 people had their say for an allotted three minutes. Many of the speakers, though, blew past the limit, offering impassioned pleas for council members to either approve the measure or vote against it.

    After the vote, Hughes praised the leadership of Benjamin, a majority of City Council, City Manager Teresa Wilson and the Columbia chamber.

    "There were many times when it appeared that divergent political forces would continue to doom the historic property to more deterioration and uselessness, a fate that many people predicted," Hughes said.

    "But I saw in the mayor an uncommon passion for what can be and a commitment that rejected business as usual. While we had many disagreements on details of the zoning and development agreement, we were able to resolve them through mutual trust and respect."

    At the outset of Monday's meeting, Devine attempted to get a second and final vote on the agreement delayed until July 23.

    Benjamin, though, urged the council not to delay further.

    "This bill will die today if we don't move forward," Benjamin said.

    Hughes did not comment on Benjamin's brinksmanship. He added that he chose not to attend public meetings "because I felt it was important that those who live in Columbia make their own decisions."

    Other details about Hughes's plans for the development include:

    • 3,558 residential dwelling units, including apartment and condominium units;
    • About 1.7 million square feet of commercial and office space;
    • A 70-room hotel;
    • A location for a church;
    • Recreational spaces;
    • Hiking and open spaces;
    • And community facilities.

    The next step is for his company, Hughes Development Corp., to complete the purchase of the hospital property, Hughes said. He added that the process will "begin immediately."

    It took nearly a decade to reach Monday's vote.

    In May 2005, the Department of Mental Health announced its intention to sell the property and in 2007 the S.C. Supreme Court ruled that the agency could proceed.

    In December 2010, Hughes placed the property under contract. The contract would have expired July 31.

    "Now after years of work, we are excited to have an agreement that lets all of us work together as a team to transform Bull Street," Hughes said. "Together, we can approach the marketplace and offer a Bull Street transformation that will improve the quality of life in all parts of the city with new investment, jobs and tax revenue.

    "We will accomplish this while maintaining a reverence for this unique historical site."

    GSA Business 

    Reach Chuck Crumbo at 803-726-7542