Columbia Chamber: panel wrong to block student housing

Letter to city design commission says its rejection deters Columbia development

jwilkinson@thestate.comJanuary 10, 2013 

— The Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce is charging that the City’s Design Development Review Commission may have broken the law last month when it turned back a controversial student housing project planned for the site of the historic Palmetto Compress warehouse on Blossom Street.

In a letter dated Wednesday and copied to City Council and Mayor Steve Benjamin, the chamber said the commission’s rejection of the $40 million Edwards Communities project was “an abuse of discretionary authority” that would drive away other developers and business owners.

The letter also said that an Edwards Communities’ request for a rehearing said “the decisions by DDRC were erroneous, contrary to law and did not follow the commission’s own procedures.”

The historic warehouse would be razed under the Ohio-based company’s plan, which has drawn strong opposition among preservationists and others.

The letter was sent to boost a petition for a rehearing by Edwards Communities and the warehouse’s high-powered owners, which include family members of former Gov. Robert McNair and businessman John Lumpkin, a member of the chamber’s executive committee. That request will be considered by the commission tonight.

“We encourage the DDRC to grant a rehearing and urge an objective process … rather than the emotionally charged issues and misinformation that continues to delay proper consideration of the project,” chamber officials wrote.

The commission on Dec. 13 by an 8-1 vote turned back the 800-bed student housing project – one of four slated for downtown Columbia – because it failed to meet density and connectivity aspects suggested by USC’s Innovista district design guidelines. Members referred to the cluster of three- and four-story apartment buildings as a suburban-style development wedged in an urban setting.

At that meeting, more than 20 people spoke in opposition to the project. Only two speakers, the Edwards Communities’ chief executive Pete Edwards and its vice president in charge of land acquisition Steve Simonetti, spoke in favor of the project.

Edwards Communities, the Palmetto Compress owners and now the chamber claim that the commission allowed arguments to save the four-story, 320,000-square-foot building to factor in to its decision rather than abiding by the staff recommendation, which was based on the letter of the law. Nearly all of those who spoke against the project mentioned the warehouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The owners, developers and the chamber also said the commission overstepped their authority because the city’s planning staff had recommended the project’s approval.

“We find it very unusual — if not unprecedented — that DDRC would ignore its own staff recommendation,” the chamber wrote, mirroring language contained in the owners’ and developers’ complaints in their rehearing petitions. The letter was signed by chamber chief executive Ike McLeese and board chairman Lee Bussell.

“We find the disconnect astounding,” John Currie, one of the warehouse owners and spokesman for the group, said when contacted Wednesday by The State. He is an attorney with McNair Law Firm.

Both Currie and Bussell said warehouse owner and chamber executive committee member Lumpkin had recused himself from discussions about the letter and did not vote on it.

Bussell said the letter is intended not to expand the controversy surrounding the project, “but to settle it down.”

“We don’t want to make an issue of that,” he said. “But we don’t want the developer walking away from here with a bad taste in their mouth. We don’t want them running around telling people what a terrible place Columbia is to do business.”

Edwards Communities’ Simonetti declined to comment.

DDRC Chairman David Ross declined to comment on the letter or the rehearing petition. Member and former chairman Dale Marshall said the chamber’s charges were incorrect, but declined further comment.

One leading opponent of the project, developer Richard Burts, said city council caused much of the controversy surrounding the project when it failed to nominate the warehouse for city landmark status, which would have given the DDRC and the public a voice in whether it could be demolished.

“While the DDRC meeting was not about the (Palmetto Compress building), it’s hard to completely separate the two,” he wrote in an email. “If we are going to lose such a valuable link in our city’s historic fabric, what goes up in it’s place should also be something that stands the test of time. The design, in my opinion, did not meet the ideals of the Innovista Masterplan. … If the DDRC can’t give any opinion or ruling contrary to what the city’s staff is recommending, why have the commission at all?”

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