Bolton: Columbia should exercise due care, postpone vote on Bull Street

Associate EditorJuly 7, 2013 

Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— MAYOR STEVE Benjamin says the proposed Bull Street development will be either one of the greatest accomplishments in Columbia’s history or one of the city’s greatest flops.

He said that in defense of his push to move expeditiously in approving an agreement that outlines the city’s financial commitments to the project. Mr. Benjamin says he doesn’t want the city to miss out on a unique opportunity because it did what it has done so often in the past — dragged its feet.

Indeed, Columbia has a history of indecisiveness and delay, but this doesn’t have to be one of those instances even if the council honors requests to postpone a Tuesday vote in order to give the proposed development agreement sufficient public airing so changes can be made to protect citizens’ interests.

This is not delay; it is due care.

Let’s be clear. The Bull Street development is a monumental undertaking that, if successful, will bring monumental return to the city, the region and private investors.

All the ingredients are there. A one-of-a-kind tract of land that, at 181 acres, is thought to be the largest available in a city core on the East Coast. A city that recognizes the opportunity it has and is willing to commit public dollars to help make it a reality. A capable, proven developer in Bob Hughes of Greenville, who has said he doesn’t want to develop a run-of-the-mill good project but a transformational one.

This is doable. But it’s going to take the collective effort of the city and the developer — and an informed public. The public deserves more than to be heard; it deserves to have its elected leaders respond to questions and share how and why they came to make the financial and other commitments in the pact. If adjustments are warranted, they should be made.

Mayor Benjamin told me that some adjustments — he didn’t divulge what they were — will be presented on Tuesday, prior to the scheduled final vote. It’s possible there will be additional amendments, he said.

An issue of this magnitude that involves preservation and environmental concerns as well as a large public subsidy can become highly emotional and politically charged. But Columbians must relax and embrace this wonderful opportunity that must not be squandered. Just as the council needs to slow down (by a couple weeks at least), others need to cool their jets as well. Mayor Benjamin and those who insist on moving quickly aren’t out to snow anyone; their motives are good. They want to see this city succeed in a big way.

But, as Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine noted after Monday’s public hearing, the current document is “a good first draft,” and the council should go back to the negotiating table.

I agree. The agreement is structured well in general, requires the developer to meet benchmarks before public funding is expended and requires historic buildings to be spared. But there is room, and a need, for improvement.

Here are a few thoughts:

Public investment. While it is appropriate and necessary for Columbia to help provide infrastructure, the agreement promises too much by essentially offering to pay for it all — water, sewer and roads. The city’s initial commitment is $31.25 million, and that could rise to more than $70 million if the developer hits certain benchmarks. Two parking garages and a baseball stadium are among the possible extras that could drive up the amount the city contributes.

Baseball park. City funding should be a non-starter; the agreement suggests the city would provide $20 million toward a minor league stadium. If the developer wants baseball, then he or other private interests should fund it.

Preservation. Mr. Hughes would preserve the main portion and north and south wings of the Babcock Building, the male and female dining halls, the Williams Building and the Chapel of Hope. The city could relocate three others if he decides not to keep them. Preservationists want more buildings saved. But as desirable as that might be, it’s not realistic. Mr. Hughes is a developer, not a curator.

That said, it’s curious that the developer isn’t required to develop the buildings for reuse. Now, as the mayor said, it makes no sense to keep them if you’re not going to improve them. The manner in which the mammoth Babcock Building looms over the property demands that it be redeveloped. Yet the agreement doesn’t guarantee that. The closest it comes is the promise of a city-financed garage if the developer rehabilitates the Babcock Building, constructs 120,000 square feet of property or builds a baseball stadium. That doesn’t ensure Babcock’s renovation. It says the city doesn’t care which of the three options is chosen, suggesting that a baseball stadium is as important as the redevelopment of Babcock. It’s not.

These aren’t the only questions being raised about the agreement. As important as it is to get this deal done so we can crank up development, it’s unwise to move so quickly that needed debate doesn’t occur and necessary changes aren’t made.

The council should take a little more time, make needed adjustments — and then get this show on the road.

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

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