The fight over what to do about an aging warehouse on a site eyed for private student housing near USC has heated up again.
Opposing groups will meet this week at a city planning meeting to discuss the fate of the Palmetto Compress building, listed in the National Historic Register.
The building, at Blossom and Pulaski streets near the university’s fledgling Innovista campus, has been at the center of a dispute involving property owners and preservationists since August. That’s when Mayor Steve Benjamin asked city planners and City Council to have the structure designated a Columbia landmark.
That action, Benjamin said at the time, was meant to slow the process of razing the nearly century-old structure for new development, “until I was convinced that every conceivable option had been explored,” he said.
Landmark designation also would have provided the building – once a warehouse for cotton bales – with additional protections. But after touring the property with the developer and additional experts, Benjamin withdrew his request.
In a Sept. 13 letter to planning commission members, Benjamin stated that “despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars invested,” attempts to repurpose the building had proven not to be “economically feasible.”
Benjamin’s decision to withdraw his request upset those who want to see the warehouse, currently being used for storage, adapted for a new purpose.
“Saying something is not ‘economically feasible’ is not the same as determining a higher economic return can be gained by putting something else there,” said Columbia architect Dale Marshall, who has been inside the warehouse several times.
“There are viable ways to restore this building,” he said.
Both Marshall and Robin Waites, executive director of the Historic Columbia Foundation, say the right developer and mix of funding – from grants and tax abatement programs, for example – is all that is needed to save the structure, considered to be one of only four such structures left in the United States.
They also say property owners just want to sell the building for a bigger return.
“The developer has made an offer on a certain model that they know works for them,” Waites said, referring to a proposal by the Edwards Communities to build student housing on the site.
The Ohio-based developer has proposed a multi-building, student-housing complex spread out over 11 acres on either side of Blossom Street where the road is elevated between Huger Street and USC’s Greek Village. The private complex would market about 800 beds to university students.
“(The building) can be reused,” Waites said. “But it won’t be reused with the particular model those developers have in mind.”
But owners of the building say it’s not just about money.
“We thought we were going to save it,” said John Currie, describing his group’s efforts to try and find a developer who would agree to take on the mammoth property big enough to house almost two super-Walmarts. “We were wrong.”
An attorney with Columbia’s McNair Law firm, Currie is one of more than 15 owners with a vested interest in the warehouse. Those owners have tried to develop the property for the past 26 years, he said, only to come up short.
In fact, thinking the structure would be snapped up and rehabbed someday by a developer or entity with the means to take on such a project, Currie said owners formed the Palmetto Preservation Corp. when they bought the building in 1986 with an eye toward historic restoration.
The group, Currie said, envisioned a restoration on the order of the historic Mount Vernon Mill building. Renovated in the mid-1980s, that Gervais Street building now houses the State Museum.
“We were going to figure out how to use it, and it was going to be great,” he said.
The group’s thinking wasn’t far afield given the university’s plans over the past decade to expand its campus west to the river. But plans to sell the building proved unfruitful.
More than 100 developers looked at the property for everything from office space to a downtown public school, Currie said.
“We had all those people look at it and had it under contract five times,” he said.
Each time though, developers walked away from the project, citing the building’s structural challenges and unique design, he said – floors were purposefully built sloped for the processing of cotton, for example.
Those challenges, Currie and others associated with the project said, don’t just drive up costs, they make it nearly impossible to remedy.
“It is difficult if not impossible to finance ... insure and .... get approval from a code compliance standpoint,” said Steve Simonetti, Vice President of Land Acquisition and Development for the Edwards Communities.
Known for historic preservation in Columbus, Ohio, with employees who sit on the city’s historic preservation board, the firm has undertaken a number of large-scale, adaptive reuse projects in the almost 50 years the firm has been in operation, including numerous buildings in the city’s business district and “brewery district.”
Simonetti said his firm, like others, had looked into rehabbing the warehouse more than a decade ago, but the building’s floors, the mostly unstructured interior space and the lack of lighting in the middle of the four-floor structure make it difficult to adapt it to anything other than space used for storage. And even that, he said, is less than ideal.
His firm, Simonetti said, does not go into areas with the idea of “flattening everything and building new.”
“That’s certainly not how we look at things,” he said. “And it’s certainly not how we looked at this site 12 years ago. But what we’ve learned is it doesn’t make sense to attempt to convert the existing building to residential use because of all those factors.”
Those arguments, however, still don’t sit well with those who want to save the building.
Waites said if the Palmetto Compress, once part of downtown’s historic and now vanishing Ward 1 African-American community, is torn down, it will be a “huge loss” for Columbia.
“It’s sad to me that in Columbia we’re still having conversations about these buildings and that they’re driven by the almighty dollar and not what these sites mean culturally and to the community,” she said.
Both Currie and Simonetti said they understand the desire for historic preservation but say some buildings can’t be preserved. Asked if a different developer could make the project work, Currie said he no longer believes such a company exists.
“We’ve had 26 years of people coming up with ideas that don’t work,” Currie said. “If they are out there, where have they been?”
Members of the opposing groups will discuss landmark designation for the building before the city’s arts and preservation committee at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
On Thursday, the developers are scheduled to appear at 4 p.m. before the city’s Design/Development Review Commission seeking site plan approval and certificate of design approval.
Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.