Palmetto Compress demolition process under way

& cleblanc@thestate.com March 12, 2013 

— An early stage of demolition already has started at the historic Palmetto Compress warehouse even as preservationists rally to save the structure. And owners said Tuesday they aren’t counting out a student housing project on the site, despite an Ohio developer recently withdrawing plans for one.

Edwards Communities Development Co. last summer proposed a $40 million project that would house 800 students at the site at the corner of Blossom and Huger streets. Columbia’s Design Development Review Commission shot down the plan in December but had granted the company a rehearing that was supposed to happen Thursday.

Meanwhile, the company withdrew its application as preservationists mounted a campaign – garnering more than 1,000 signatures on a change.org petition – to save the building on the site from demolition.

“That does not stop (Edwards Communities) from going back with perhaps either the same plan or a modified plan,” said John Currie, a Columbia lawyer and one of the building’s owners. “It’s not like you only get one bite at the apple.

“So, I think it overstates it to say that they have determined not to pursue a student housing project. I think it means that they simply withdrew that particular application.”

Efforts to reach Edwards Communities officials about their plans Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Regardless, Currie was adamant that the nearly century-old, 320,000-square-foot warehouse that currently serves as a storage facility will be demolished.

“We have a contract with a demolition company,” he said. “They have begun to do work in there. The building is being emptied, probably as we speak, as the tenants are moving out. We’re moving forward with the demolition of the building.” However, Mayor Steve Benjamin said Tuesday afternoon that he’s confident the warehouse will be saved.

“We’re close to a resolution,” Benjamin said, declining to provide specifics. “I fully expect that this community will come together and work to keep our historic treasure.”

Benjamin slowed the project last year when he interceded as a member of City Council to have the building declared a city landmark.

But after touring the building, Benjamin withdrew his application. No other city officials have stepped in to make a similar request.

Richard Burts, a Columbia developer who has reused some historic buildings, said he does not know if preservationists will go to court to block the demolition.

“We all lose and Columbia gets more fractured than what it is,” Burts said upon hearing Tuesday that early stages of razing have begun of the former cotton warehouse. “Twenty years from now, people will cross the (Blossom Street) flyover and say, ‘What a shame.’”

The months-long fight over the building that sits prominently along an eastern gateway to the capital city has split the business and preservation communities.

Ike McLeese, director of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, said Tuesday that opponents have filed appeals only to kill the plan with delays.

“I think it’s an orchestrated attempt to delay,” McLeese said. He said he suspects that preservationists have influenced members of the DDRC.

The chamber in January wrote a letter to city leaders alleging the commission broke the law and failed to follow its own procedures when it turned back Edwards Communities’ proposal. The commission rejected the project in December. In January, members discussed whether to reconsider the decision. It took five votes -- with commission member Doris Hildebrand repeatly changing her vote -- before the commission granted a new hearing, requested by the developer.

McLeese and other supporters of the project say preservationists waited too long to get involved and that they are trying to kill to best offer warehouse owners have had in 26 years of marketing the property.

Burts said he has spoken with three developers who are interested in saving the building. None is willing to be publicly identified, but they’ve looked into ways to develop the site as either residential, commercial or a mix of the two, he said.

He called on the owners to allow 45 more days to find a developer who is able to save the warehouse. "Please come to the table and talk to us," he said.

But that seems unlikely.

Building owners won’t let any other interested developers inside to evaluate the building, Burts said.

“It’s our property. It’s not their property,” Currie said. “These people feel passionate about what they feel passionate about, I suppose.”

Other developers who have studied the building over the past couple of decades – it has been under contract half a dozen times -- have ruled out converting it for another use, Currie said.

“The universal conclusion has been it’s not workable. The building cannot economically be salvaged,” Currie said.

The demolition company has until Sept. 1 to take down the building, according to city permit issued Feb. 19. Tenants with goods in storage in the building still have until March 31 to remove their belongings before demolition gets underway in earnest, said Currie, one of about 15 owners of the Palmetto Compress warehouse and property. All the demolition work that can be done without disturbing tenants who are still in the building is being done, he said.

The objective will be to take down the Palmetto Compress building in an orderly fashion, Currie said. No wrecking balls will be used in the deconstruction, but the building will be dismantled part-by-part, brick-by-brick, salvaging wood beams, flooring, the outer brick shell and other valuable materials for re-sale and re-use, he said.

Currie said his read of public sentiment is that what has gone on with the Compress project “has been a disaster for the city,” with many thinking the preservationists – intent on preserving a building that is not very attractive – have chased away a developer.

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