Editorial: Columbia must be focused, wise in drafting agreement with Bull Street developer

May 5, 2013 

The Babcock building is one of a dozen on the Department of Mental Health's Bull Street campus that preservations say are worth preserving.

C MICHAEL BERGEN — mbergen@thestate.com Buy Photo

— WHILE COLUMBIA City Councilman Moe Baddourah’s solo attempt to secure historic landmark status for buildings at the old State Hospital property along Bull Street is misguided, it does serve the unintended purpose of refocusing us on negotiations between the city and the company proposing a large development on the site.

City officials have been quietly negotiating a development agreement with Greenville developer Bob Hughes for months. Those talks, perhaps nearing an end, include the sensitive and sometimes controversial issue of historic preservation, which could be threatened by Mr. Baddourah’s actions.

A development agreement ensures that the developer does what he says he intends to do, within community-established guidelines. It ensures that the city adheres to a consistent set of rules that aren’t constantly changing, which protects the integrity of his project. It can include elements such as the permitted uses on the property, the public facilities that would serve the project, a description of land to be donated for public purposes and a list of permits needed. It also can — and should — spell out how the developer will allay community concerns relating to such issues as traffic, the environment and, of course, the preservation of historic structures.

Once the agreement is completed, City Council must give the public an opportunity to view its contents and comment before it is approved.

City officials must take care to ensure that the rules serve the interests of the community, that they demonstrate good judgment about land use and specific development requirements. And, yes, there is great interest in knowing which buildings the developer will be required to preserve. There are about a dozen buildings on the site that preservationists say contribute to the city’s history or are architecturally unique.

In addition, taxpayers understandably are concerned about what level of financial support the city will commit to this project. It’s appropriate for the city to help provide infrastructure — water, sewer and roads — for a project that would add significantly to the tax rolls and the economy. But Columbia must not foot the entire bill. It’s believed that Mr. Hughes wants between $25 million and $40 million for infrastructure.

As important as it is for the city to get the right elements in the agreement, it is equally critical that it keep unnecessary things out. For example, a minor league baseball park should not be included. That’s not only a distraction but it would be a terrible waste of public dollars. Minor league baseball tends to be expensive to attract and even more expensive to retain, and for only modest gain. If the developer wants a stadium, he should approach private investors for assistance.

As for the city, it must remain focused on the essentials if it wants to hit a home run.

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