Editorial: Columbia’s council must sell public on warehouse purchase

March 24, 2013 

WHILE Columbia’s proposed purchase of the historic Palmetto Compress warehouse to preserve it for adaptive reuse is a noble idea, it raises serious questions that must be answered to justify a multi-million-dollar public investment.

Historic preservation is a key tenet in developing a sense of place and improving quality of life for a growing city, and smart redevelopment projects can help bolster local economies. But the expansive Compress warehouse comes with heightened pressure in that it occupies prime real estate in USC’s Innovista research campus, whose long-term success ultimately hinges on private investment.

So there is understandable uneasiness about the city purchasing the property after a private developer’s plan to transform it into student housing fell through amid objections from preservationists and a city design commission. Some in the community objected to the developer’s plan to demolish the historic building; the commission rejected the development, saying it didn’t meet design guidelines.

The Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce charged that the Design Development Review Commission erred in rejecting the Edwards Communities project. Whether you agree with that assessment or not, the chamber makes a larger point that must not be overlooked: The overall process could be received negatively by developers and hurt Columbia’s ability to recruit.

Although Edwards Communities withdrew its proposal, the building still was slated for demolition, intensifying calls from preservationists for the city to step in and save the structure. And that is what brought us to the City Council’s decision this past week to explore purchasing the property.

Before it moves forward on this purchase, City Council must develop a detailed plan revealing where the money will come from, how it intends to recoup those dollars and a timetable for identifying developers.

While it is encouraging to hear that some developers have inquired about the site, it’s imperative that the city quickly determine who the serious players are so this property can be sold to private developers to transform it into housing or some mixed-use development. It would be unacceptable for the city to buy this property and allow it to sit for five or 10 years.

And it would be unacceptable for Columbia to consider developing this site itself, or becoming the chief backer. Columbia is not in the real estate or development business; that’s the purview of private interests. If indeed there are willing investors, let them redevelop this site in a manner that preserves its historic context, enhances commerce and Innovista’s growth and adds to the local tax base.

In times past, the city has been too aggressive in taking on projects better handled by the private sector. Consider its purchase of the Central Correction Institution along the river for $3.2 million in 1995. Unable to find a developer, city officials decided to develop the property themselves. It was years (and millions of dollars) later before Columbia acknowledged that it shouldn’t be in the development business and sold the property to the company that developed CanalSide.

On the other hand, Columbia has found success in providing limited help to developers willing to spend private dollars to help build up the city. For example, it contributed $1.6 million toward the transformation of the historic Confederate Printing Plant in the Vista into a Publix.

But a developer drove that transformation. Taxpayers would own the Palmetto Compress warehouse.

Before making that investment, City Council is obligated to outline a plan that assures the public that this is more than a speculative venture whose only aim is to keep the warehouse standing. It must have a plan that promotes preservation and progress.

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