COLUMBIA, SC — A Columbia City Council member has applied for historic landmark status for nine buildings at the former State Hospital campus along Bull Street without consulting the present or potential owners of the sprawling, 183-acre tract
Landmark status, if approved by the city, could threaten a pending sale, said an attorney for the S.C. Department of Mental Health, which owns the campus. Bull Street is considered the largest, most important land deal in modern city history, paving the way for an entire new neighborhood of homes, offices, stores and perhaps even a minor league baseball park.
The historic designation would make it much more difficult for an Upstate developer who has the property under contract to raze the buildings and redevelop the property.
Councilman Moe Baddourah, who is running for mayor, said he wanted to prevent a repeat of the Palmetto Compress debacle, in which the city is stepping in to buy a century-old brick warehouse for nearly $6 million in taxpayer money with the hope that a developer can re-use it.
“We can avoid that this time by planning ahead,” said Baddourah, who noted that the city is currently negotiating a development agreement with Greenville developer Bob Hughes – a precursor to its sale. “We don’t have (a final) agreement with the developer, so this is a good time to do it.”
Mental Health attorney Mark Binkley said the agency will oppose landmark status for the buildings. He said the development agreement between Hughes’ team and city staff would decide which buildings to save.
“This is unnecessary and potentially interferes with our ability to sell the property,” he said. “The city already retains the ability to control what buildings will be preserved.”
Hughes, through a spokesman, said he was aware of Baddourah’s action but declined further comment.
The applications are on Monday’s5/6 Columbia Planning Commission agenda, and the May 9 agenda for the city’s Design/Development Review Commission. Those votes, if taken, would be non-binding and advisory to City Council, which has not yet scheduled a vote on the issue.
Bull Street is home to nearly a dozen buildings that preservations have said contribute to the city’s history or are unique examples of important architecture. Among them are the Babcock Building with its distinctive red cupola, the Chapel of Hope and the Williams Building.
A site map for the campus, called a planned unit development and already given zoning approval, shows five buildings being retained.
Baddourah calls for nine buildings, including smaller outbuildings for the Babcock Building, such as a small former mattress shop and a former bakery.
Preservationists have identified a dozen buildings, including the Horger Library and Benet Auditorium, which are not on Baddourah’s list.
Robin Waites, executive director of Historic Columbia Foundation, said she favors landmark status for all of the historic buildings but stopped short of saying that she endorses Baddourah’s method and timing.
“We agree with Mr. Baddourah that the buildings need protecting,” she said. “We support landmarking the buildings.”
Waites and other preservationists have been central to the fight to save the Palmetto Compress building, along Blossom Street at Pulaski Street. Their opposition in part helped to persuade an Ohio student housing developer to walk away from a $40 million, 800-bed student-housing development, which would have required the warehouse to be razed. The group of owners of the Palmetto Compress insisted its age, condition and structural design prevented reuse.
Mayor Steve Benjamin first applied for landmark status for the building, but later withdrew the application saying he believed the building would be too expensive to renovate. After months of turmoil over the building’s fate, Benjamin further explained that he didn’t want to set a precedent of filing for landmark status over an owner’s objection – which his re-election opponent Baddourah is now trying to do.
A spokesman for the mayor on Monday said Benjamin was aware of Baddourah’s applications but declined comment.
Compared with Bull Street, the $40 million student housing project was pocket change. No overall economic impact figures have been developed; but a 2005 plan developed by renowned architect Andres Duany and his team called for more than 1,200 houses, apartments and condos, and hundreds of thousands of square feet of offices and retail, which would essentially reinvent the city core.
Sources close to the deal say it could mean $1 billion or more to the Columbia economy over the course of a 20- to 25-year development cycle.
Ike McLeese, chief executive of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, called Baddourah’s move “a misstep that could have very serious consequences.”
He said the development agreement is nearing completion, including negotiations on historic buildings, and unilateral action could further delay the discussions, which so far have dragged on for months.
“I don’t understand the rationale,” McLeese said. “I don’t understand a member of council trying to cherry-pick buildings when all of this is supposed to be addressed in a master development plan.
“I don’t know what Moe’s purpose is,” he added, “but this is the kind of thing that could make this fall apart. And if he’s running for mayor, I don’t think he wants to be known as the guy that ran Bob Hughes out of town.”