IF YOU THINK the protests, legal wrangling, charges and counter charges that characterized the debate over the Palmetto Compress warehouse was something, wait until discussions begin over the proposed development of the old State Hospital on Bull Street.
The Palmetto Compress fight involved only one structure, a 320,000-square-foot former cotton warehouse, built in stages from 1917 to 1923. The Bull Street site is a veritable city that includes more than a dozen old buildings the storied Babcock building, built in 1857, and one of the nations oldest mental health buildings, is among them likely to prompt an even more vigorous debate about preservation.
This could get ugly.
The warehouse debate is a reminder that Columbia still lacks a process that encourages planning, productive dialogue and priority setting when it comes to the preservation of historic places. As the city continues to grow and develop, more and more older structures are going to face development or demolition. How will the city promote meaningful discussions to determine which of these structures should escape the wrecking ball?
The capital city has never had a high degree of sensitivity when it comes to historic preservation. While the city has a process by which buildings can receive landmark status, historic preservation has never really been a priority with some city officials or with many residents.
Without at least a commitment to ongoing dialogue about preservation, a growing city will fight the same fight each time the fate of an older structure comes up. We know the pattern: City officials or private investors decide an aging building is of no current use and needs to be razed for new construction. Preservationists proclaim the structure historic, and seek to protect it. That leads to time-consuming debate and maybe even legal proceedings. While one side might eventually win, that could sow so much discord that, as a community, were all losers.
Youve got to wonder what Edwards Communities of Ohio is saying about Columbia these days. Thats the company that sought to demolish the Compress warehouse to make way for student housing.
Now, it makes sense to me to save the historic building and put it to a new use if possible. And while that might happen if the city purchases the property and finds developers who can do it, think about how developers who have been watching this from afar must view Columbias process.
The last thing the city needs is a reputation for protracted, nasty disputes over historic preservation.
That doesnt mean we cant have vigorous debates and differences of opinion. Thats part of the process. But we would benefit from a template that lays out an intentional process aimed at facilitating historic preservation while at the same time recognizing the need for progress. That way, everyone understands what the ground rules are upfront.
What if Columbia had an ongoing conversation about preservation and a published list of priority structures that coincided with economic-development discussions?
Robin Waites of the Historic Columbia Foundation says the organization began developing such a list in 2005.
Mayor Steve Benjamin is pushing for an exhaustive list. We need to identify every building in the city that we believe as a collective community has historic value, he said. Once that is done, there can be discussions with owners about the economic benefits of preservation in hopes that they voluntarily seek landmark status, he said.
Such efforts could help develop more awareness about historic preservation. Right now, its not engrained in the citys culture. Thats why it seems like a fight breaks out every time a significant structure is on the chopping block. Its almost always an us-vs.-them scenario with preservationists, the business community, government and communities finding themselves on various sides of the table.
In the midst of such battles, preservationists often are seen as obstructionists. But Mike Bedendaugh, executive director of the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, said communities must grow beyond the thought that preservation means stopping things.
And Im sure some preservationists might see developers as being close-minded and unwilling to think outside of the box.
But developers understandably are thinking about the bottom line. One of the Compress buildings owners as well as Edwards Communities said structural challenges make it nearly impossible to rehab; attempting to do so would only drive up costs. Preservationists disagree; they said it can be done.
If ever there was a chance of bringing the two together to figure it out, that evaporated once things became adversarial. Its difficult to make the argument that preservation is good for business when youve just derailed what a developer thought was a promising project.
Weve seen the good and the bad of these skirmishes.
Remember the objections from preservationists when First Citizens Bank attempted to demolish the historic Brennen Building on Main Street? Or the long debate over the old Richland County Jail on Hampton Street, which eventually was razed to make way for a private condominium project that never happened? There have been successes as well: The Confederate Printing Plant was transformed into a Publix, the Columbia Mill became the State Museum, and the Black House was converted into the Inn at USC.
Everybody and anybody that considers themselves a citizen of a city has a responsibility to be concerned about how that city will play in the future, Mr. Bedendaugh said, adding that its important to keep our traditions, our built environment.
Mr. Benjamin agreed. We do have the responsibility to determine what kind of city we want to be, he said. I do believe that we will be judged by our ability to pass on our heritage and our culture to our children.
As Columbia seeks to do that, there is going to be tension between preserving the past and making way for the future. Not every building deemed historic will be saved; sometimes it will be forced to give way to progress. But many times, these buildings can and should be saved; and they often can be put to reuse.
The bright people of Columbia can figure this out. First, they must realize that this isnt simply about saving historic buildings or building new ones. Its about self-preservation, in a collective sense.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.