April 16, 2015

Palmetto Compress renovation celebrated

About 100 people braved chilly temperatures and a light drizzle on Thursday to kickoff renovation of the historic Palmetto Compress Warehouse.

Mayor Steve Benjamin joined Philadelphia developer Ron Caplan and local businesswoman Rosie Craig in the ceremony, which was held under two large white tents and accompanied by a jazz band at the foot of the former cotton warehouse. A gospel trio opened the ceremony with a rendition of "We Shall Not Be Moved."

The podium was adorned with a wreath made of cotton polls and the stage was flanked by fire hoses from the warehouse. Former residents of Columbia's old Ward One were recognized. The warehouse is the last vestige of that largely African-American neighborhood, which has been swallowed up by a growing University of South Carolina.

"We're not just preserving history," said Benjamin, who was heavily criticized for advocating the city's purchase of the structure two years ago. "We're making it."

The century-old warehouse sits within blocks of four major student housing projects and was almost razed to make way for one of them. Caplan told The State before the ceremony that the compress would house market rate apartments rather than student housing.

"We don't believe in having just student housing," he said. "We believe communities are better served if there is diversity."

But he added: "We believe students are people like everybody else. If students want to live there, that's fine too. It's open to everybody."

Although several sources have said a hotel might be in the works for the building, Caplan said "there are no plans yet." He added that it is "too early" to nail down retailers.

Caplan purchased the building for $6 million, after the Columbia Development Corp., which encourages and guides investment in the Vista, awarded the development rights to local preservationist and businesswoman Rosie Craig. Craig will remain a minority partner in the project.

The cotton storage facility between Blossom and Devine streets, two blocks from the Colonial Life Arena, will have 197 apartments; a five-story, 482-space parking garage; a ground-level pool; 10,000 square feet of retail space; and rebuilt porches on the side of the building that faces the University of South Carolina campus.

The building had been slated for demolition after years of its longtime owners saying they could find no one able to redevelop it at a reasonable cost.

Benjamin, in a nod to Ward One's history, said the preservation effort was important "to make sure people know that our stories matter."

Read more at The State here