Bolton: Does Columbia Councilman Baddourah want to kill Bull Street project?

Associate EditorMay 3, 2013 

— COLUMBIA City Councilman Moe Baddourah might want to be mayor, but he’s acting like the Lone Ranger by taking it upon himself to demand that nine buildings at the old State Hospital site on Bull Street be designated as historic landmarks even as city officials negotiate that and other issues with a developer.

Maybe the first-term councilman is sincere in aggressively seeking to preserve the structures for fear they are endangered. But considering the city is approaching the end of months of negotiations with Greenville developer Bob Hughes, it’s hard not to see Mr. Baddourah’s effort as a political stunt. If the councilman, who will try to unseat Mayor Steve Benjamin in November, is able to get the buildings designated as historic landmarks, they couldn’t be demolished without city approval. He would be a hero to preservationists and others who want to see as many buildings spared as possible on the site, right?

And he would have done what Mayor Benjamin failed to do early in the debate over the future of the Palmetto Compress warehouse. As an Ohio developer pursued a plan that called for razing the warehouse to build student housing, Mayor Benjamin requested that the structure be placed on the landmarks list. He later withdrew his request, leaving preservationists as disappointed as they had been pleased when he sought the protection.

Mayor Benjamin ultimately helped orchestrate the plan for the city to buy the historic warehouse and market it for adaptive reuse. Mr. Baddourah, who opposed the purchase, said he wants to plan ahead to avoid the process the city had to go through with Palmetto Compress.

But he’s playing with fire. If he’s successful at getting the buildings designated as landmarks, it could torpedo the Bull Street deal.

An attorney for the S.C. Department of Mental Health, which owns the property, said the agency intends to oppose landmark status. “This is unnecessary and potentially interferes with our ability to sell the property,” Mark Binkley said. “The city already retains the ability to control what buildings will be preserved.”

Mental Health agreed to sell the property to Mr. Hughes for $15 million in June 2011. The sale and eventual start of the project haven’t moved nearly as swiftly as anyone would like, and Mr. Baddourah’s stunt is sure to cause more delay.

While historic preservation is going to be much debated as the Bull Street site is developed, Mr. Baddourah is causing unnecessary friction. City officials and Mr. Hughes know that there are expectations that as many buildings as possible be preserved.

Bull Street is home to nearly a dozen buildings that preservationists have said contribute to the city’s history or are unique examples of important architecture. The Babcock Building, the Chapel of Hope and the Williams Building are among them. No matter what Columbia and Mr. Hughes come up with, there will be battles over a number of these buildings. They must develop a list and justifications that are publicly aired and debated before a development agreement is formally approved.

From the time the state started seriously marketing the property for sale several years ago, it was clear that there needed to be discussions over what buildings would be preserved. That fact was reaffirmed when a group of local citizens held sessions to get public input about the site. Historic preservationists have said it over and over again. Late last year, students from the University of South Carolina did an assessment of buildings on the property and made their own recommendations.

Prior to Mr. Baddourah’s joining the council, some members of City Council considered placing a historic overlay on the property, but they backed down after Mental Health officials told them that would be a deal killer. Mr. Baddourah should heed the latest warning.

Let me be clear: This property must not be developed without serious, inclusive discussions about what needs to be preserved. Every building possible should be kept for reuse. But that doesn’t mean every old structure can or will be saved.

Mr. Hughes has said that he is sensitive to the historical significance of some of the buildings and intends to be responsive to that. He hasn’t made any promises, but he knows he will be closely watched. And city officials can make demands via the development agreement they’re negotiating. But City Council also must give him leeway to develop his property in a way that produces a reasonable return on his investment. The bottom line is that Mr. Hughes is a developer, not a curator of historic structures. If the requirement was to leave every building standing, he wouldn’t have considered this endeavor.

That’s why it’s so important for Mr. Baddourah to stand down and allow the city to deal with this matter through the development agreement.

Let’s remember: Mr. Hughes is the lone developer who has shown interest in this property. If he is run off, Mental Health won’t get the cash it sorely needs from the sale and Columbia will miss out on a tremendous economic opportunity.

Mr. Hughes promises to build a transformational mixed-use development that could be a game-changer not only for Columbia but for the entire region. As “master developer,” he intends to develop or sell parcels of property to other developers and pay Mental Health the $15 million in installments.

A 2005 plan for Bull Street, drafted by noted architect Andres Duany, called for more than 1,200 houses, apartments and condos, and hundreds of thousands of square feet of offices and retail. Mr. Hughes’ project is to be somewhat different but isn’t likely to stray too far from the overall concept. Some project that the development could pump $1 billion or more into the local economy.

Does Mr. Baddourah really want to kill this deal? I doubt it. But he’s certainly working on it.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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