Concerns don’t derail Columbia’s backing for Bull Street plan

cleblanc@thestate.comJuly 1, 2013 

  • Highlights Here are the major provisions of the development agreement between Columbia City Council and Greenville developer Bob Hughes to construct a huge neighborhood in the heart of the city. By a one-vote margin Monday, council gave the disputed agreement the first of two votes that will commit taxpayers to at least $31.25 million to install basic utilities as private investment begins in one of the four construction stages. The entire project will take at least 20 years to complete. The final council vote is set for July 9. WATER, SEWER, ROADS Public money

    $31.25 million for water, sewer, stormwater lines, roads and lighting during four construction phases of the neighborhood during a 20-year period.

    • The first $15.4 million will be spent on construction phases one, two and three.

    • The remaining $15.8 million will be for phase four, with financial commitments from the developer.

    Private money

    $81.25 million return in private investment to get the full $31.25 million in public dollars.

    • To get the second installment from the city, the developer must commit to making $5 in economic development for every $1 the city puts into phase four.

    Public money

    Two parking garages with a total of 1,600 spaces. The agreement does not contain a price tag, but estimates have put the public cost at about $20 million.

    Private money

    • To get the first garage, developers will have to do one of three things; construct at least 120,000 square feet of property; rehabilitate the Babcock Building; construct a baseball stadium.

    • To get the second garage, developers must have purchased half of the site’s total 181 acres or must have secured $75 million in private investment.

    Private money

    • Developer is donating land for a police substation on the property, installing a pump station to provide pressure for the area’s water system and conducting a tree survey before building each phase of the project.


    •  Developer agrees to preserve several buildings on the property: The Babcock Building, including its north and south wings; the former dining halls for men and women; the Williams Building; the Chapel of Hope; the row of mature magnolia trees that lead to the Babcock Building.

    Funding sources

    •  City Council has yet to decide precisely how it will pay for the utilities and amenities. A tax-increment finance plan is still on the table for the Bull Street development, but not in concert with the north Columbia area, Mayor Steve Benjamin said.

    SOURCE: Development agreement with Hughes Development Corp. and city officials

— A narrow Columbia City Council majority on Monday endorsed a multimillion-dollar commitment of public money to the Bull Street neighborhood, but left a bad taste in some taxpayers’ mouths.

Mayor Steve Benjamin pushed through a vote even though three council members wanted to continue talks with Greenville developer Bob Hughes, who is buying the 181-acre site and plans to build a sprawling neighborhood that offers homes, stores, greenspaces and perhaps a baseball park.

“It’s been our habit as a city to continue talking and talking and not doing,” Benjamin said to requests for delays from councilwomen Tameika Isaac Devine and Leona Plaugh and councilman Moe Baddourah. “If we sleep and we miss this opportunity, we will regret it for decades to come.”

Monday’s 4-3 outcome on the first of two required votes, and the refusal to allow more time to strengthen the city’s hand in a development agreement with Hughes Development Corp., left some residents feeling city leaders don’t want to barter harder for their interests.

Benjamin and councilmen Sam Davis, Brian DeQuincey Newman and Cameron Runyan voted to adopt the deal hammered out since last summer and finalized last week.

Columbia attorney Toby Ward said after a 41/2-hour, standing-room-only public hearing at the Eau Claire print building that council blinked before getting the best deal for taxpayers.

“The city failed to send a clear message to the developer that it is serious about negotiating a sound, fiscally responsible contract,” said Ward, who was among more than three dozen people who mostly raised concerns about the 131-page document that would commit the city to at least $31.25 million to install roads and utilities.

Elizabeth Marks, president of the Robert Mills Historic District neighborhood that abuts the property, said council’s decision was dismissive.

“I do believe that it’s a possibility that everything said today will not be included in the agreement,” Marks said.

No one who spoke said they oppose Hughes or development of the property.

Most said they want council to proceed more slowly and to push Hughes further to preserve more buildings and trees, to get a master plan for the site, to tighten procurement standards and for council to publicly state the funding sources – all before the deal becomes final. That is scheduled to happen July 9.

Jeannie Eidson said she had read the thick documents, been to every public meeting on the adoption of the development agreement and the unique-to-Columbia zoning plan for the property, “and I still have no more tangible vision that I did when I attended the first meeting. We need to know the details of the plan. I think it’s time for Mr. Hughes to share his vision.”

About a half dozen speakers pushed for proceeding quickly.

Mental health advocate Dave Almeda warned council not to be the “hijacked” by preservationists who he said place the well-being of buildings above the well-being of people. “I call upon you to simply place people before buildings,” he said.

Accountant Terry Williams said the new neighborhood would reverse the deterioration of adjoining properties.

“You’re either going to bring economic development or do you want to be the homeless center of the Southeast?” Williams said.

Councilwoman Devine said she heard enough concerns that council should return to the negotiating table. She called the version tentatively adopted Monday “a good first draft.”

Devine preferred to wait even though “I do believe time kills deals.”

She and Plaugh suggested delaying a vote Monday and holding a third public hearing later this month or early in August before a final decision.

That effort lost by the same 4-3 vote.

Devine said sticking to a schedule of a final vote next week “sends a message that we’re not serious” about making the changes suggested by the public.

Benjamin insisted he and city staffers can digest the suggestions heard Monday and try to negotiate further with Hughes by next week’s final public hearing and vote.

The differences of opinion weren’t limited to the audience. Council’s conversations grew strained.

At one point, Benjamin challenged Baddourah’s remarks last week to The State newspaper, in which Baddourah said he had been kept from attending the final negotiating session June 19 with Hughes’ team.

“Who told you that?” the mayor asked the first-term councilman, who is seeking to unseat Benjamin in the fall election.

“You did,” Baddourah said.

“Mr. Baddourah, that is a lie. How dare you,” Benjamin said. “It couldn’t be more false.”

Benjamin quickly apologized for calling Baddourah a liar.

One of the issues raised by the public Monday was that the controversial agreement does not address the cost of two parking garages and a minor league baseball stadium, which likely would raise the public investment $70 million or more.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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