COLUMBIA, SC — A project by an Ohio company to build an 800-student housing complex in The Vista is going forward despite blistering opposition to the demolition of a cotton warehouse on site that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Preservationists say that allowing the building to be razed sets a bad precedent for future negotiations with developers, particularly upcoming decisions about historic buildings on the old State Hospital campus on Bull Street.
I think it tells developers all you have to do is say preservation is not financially viable and you can get through council, said developer Richard Burts, who converted the crumbling Gallery 701 the Olympia mill villages former community center into the thriving 701 Whaley arts and event complex. You dont have to show it. You dont have to thoughtfully work through it.
A three-hour showdown was held by a Columbia City Council committee Oct. 9 to vent the concerns of preservationists and others. But since then, no council members or staff have come forward to ask that the four-story, 320,000-square-foot building be designated a city landmark.
Only city council members, the city manager and certain staff are allowed to seek the designation, which would give the citys Design Development Review Commission the power to block the nearly century old buildings demolition if members chose to do so an action that the developers, Edwards Communities of Columbus, Ohio have said would kill the $40 million project.
City Council member Cameron Runyan, chairman of the Art and Historic Preservation Committee, predicted no members would come forward.
I dont think its going to happen, he said. There is no will among anybody to blow up a $40 million project.
But his two fellow committee members werent so sure.
Both Brian DeQuincey Newman and Sam Davis say they havent made up their minds and are still talking with individuals about the issue.
Im not prepared to do anything right now, Davis said. Were still in the process of weighing all that has been presented to us. Given the sensitivity of the issue and the concerns of both sides we need to make sure we make the right decision.
Newman, whose downtown district includes USCs Innovista research district, where the project will be located, said he will make up his mind within a week.
We do want to encourage positive development, but at the same time, we want to be careful that we dont infringe on the culture of our city, he said.
Mayor Steve Benjamin originally asked for the landmark designation for the building but withdrew it after touring the building and speaking with architects. He said he believes it would be financially unfeasible to renovate the building for other uses.
Preliminary plans submitted by Edwards Communities show eight three-story and four-story buildings containing about 800 beds arrayed on either side of Blossom Street between Pulaski Street and the railroad cut just south of USCs Greek Village.
The two main buildings, including the club house and pool, are on the site of the four-story Palmetto Compress building.
Steve Simonetti, the vice president of land acquisition for Edwards Communities, said the preliminary site plan is now being adjusted based on city planning staff input; but, he wouldnt comment further citing what he called the sensitive nature of the project. The building falls under zoning for the USCs Innovista Master Plan and a section of the site located south of Blossom Street is owned by the USC Foundation.
The building was purchased in 1986 by a group called the Palmetto Preservation Corp. The previous owner, the late Henry Thomas, had applied and received the national register designation which does nothing to prevent its demolition in 1985 prior to the sale.
A 15-member group, inspired by the efforts to turn the old Columbia Mill into what is now the S.C. State Museum, included such heavy hitters as engineering firm founder Wilbur Smith, the late former Gov. Robert McNair and businessman John Lumpkin.
One of the owners, John Currie, said last week that for 26 years the ownership group has tried to market the property to developers, but none were willing to reuse the building because of the cost, despite interest from more than 100 people. He noted that the property has been under contract five times and nothing has moved forward.
It was intended to be a profit-making venture, Currie said. The thought was that growth would eventually get to it. But its a money-losing proposition.
Burts said the owners should have reached out to the development community to take on the challenging project rather than marketing the property to traditional developers who would be more interested in the lots. He noted that the old Olympia and Granby Mills, once thought to be white elephants, are now successful apartments and out-of-date office buildings along Main Street have been converted into condos, apartments and even a boutique hotel.
There are developers who specialize in this now, he said. Look at the mills, look at us, look at the Sheraton.
Burts and others, including the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation and the Historic Columbia Foundation, would like to see a formal structural and codes assessment done, and a search made for developers who would be willing to take on the project, perhaps in conjunction with Edwards Communities.
But if the developer feels like he is being green-lighted by the city (to tear it down), why would they work with the city and others to save it? he said.
Burts noted that the warehouse is the last remnant of the old African-American Ward One neighborhood, which was flattened by USC as its campus stretched toward the river.
He predicted that when the thousands of people a day who drive down Blossom Street see the building being torn down, there will be a general outcry.
Historic Columbia executive director Robin Waites said not giving the warehouse, which is on the national register, local landmark status sets a bad precedent for an even bigger project the old State Hospital campus on Bull Street.
A dozen or more buildings which could be deemed historic are on that site, she said, and councils decision not to give a building on the National Register like the Palmetto Compress building local designation makes her question the bodys will to protect the Bull Street buildings.
Council member Runyan said the two projects are unrelated.
The preservation community needs to stop dealing in hyperbole, he said. This and Bull Street are two different things. Well be as aggressive as we need to be on Bull Street.