Landmark status for Bull Street buildings delayed

jwilkinson@thestate.comMay 6, 2013 

— Online

The Columbia Planning Commission on Monday deferred a City Council member’s request for added protection for some historic buildings on the old State Hospital campus along Bull Street, saying the way he presented them was “haphazard and disjointed.”

Moe Baddourah, a first-term City Council member who is running for mayor, 10 days ago unexpectedly applied for landmark status for nine buildings without consulting the current or potential owners of the sprawling, 183-acre tract. Landmark status would mean City Council would have to give approval before a building could be razed. Critics have said the move could jeopardize the biggest land deal in downtown Columbia in modern times.

Then on Monday, without explanation, Baddourah deferred five of those requests, withdrew one and left three on the agenda, to the bafflement of Planning Commission members.

“It seems like an odd approach,” member Chris Brownlee said.

An Upstate developer has a $15 million contract with the Department of Mental Health, the currentowners, to buy the land and is negotiating a development agreement with the city to build a new neighborhood of homes, shops and offices that promise to remake a large area near the city’s core. The development is considered one of the largest land deals in the city, worth more than $1 billion in economic impact over the next 20-25 years, sources close to the deal have said.

Several sources close to the deal said Baddourah’s requests could derail negotiations with Hughes, which are said to be nearing conclusion. A spokesman for Hughes declined to comment.

Baddourah did not attend Monday’s meeting. Council members are discouraged from attending commission meetings, planning director Krista Hampton said.

The city’s Design Development Review Commission is set to consider the request for landmark status Thursday.

In a statement sent to The State after the meeting, Baddourah said he was trying to open a public discussion on historic preservation at the site and prevent a repeat of the Palmetto Compress controversy. The city is stepping in to buy the century-old brick warehouse at Blossom and Pulaski streets for nearly $6 million in taxpayer money with the hope that a developer can reuse it.

“The question of whether to give the Palmetto Compress warehouse an historic designation could and should have been decided long ago,” he said in the statement. “Instead, the city waited until someone was about to sell it and someone was about to purchase it before deciding to step in. As a result, the city ended up purchasing a building – and using public funds set aside to cover health care costs of city retirees to do so.”

Preservationists have been fighting to save the Palmetto Compress building for months, and they in part persuaded 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.

Baddourah’s opponent, 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 Baddourah is now trying to do.

But the potential of the Bull Street redevelopment dwarfs the Palmetto Compress student housing project. 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.

The plan also called for the preservation of 17 of the campus’s 55 buildings. So far, city zoning agreements have protected only five buildings. Baddourah said in his statement that his requests were intended to conform with the Duany plan and “foster a big-picture discussion about long-term planning.”

But landmark status for the buildings, if approved by the city, could threaten a pending sale, according to an attorney for Mental Health. Mark Binkley told the commission that Baddourah’s approach could adversely impact negotiations between Hughes and the city.

“It would put a spanner in the works, as they say in Britain,” he said.

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