Editorial: Bids for Palmetto Compress warehouse an encouraging sign for Columbia

October 6, 2013 

GERRY MELENDEZ — GERRY MELENDEZ/gmelendez@thestate.com Buy Photo

— WHILE IT remains to be seen if any of the six bids from developers desiring to transform the Palmetto Compress warehouse into a new use will prove worthwhile, the level of interest is encouraging.

Many were wary when Columbia City Council voted in the spring to purchase the building, with the plan to market it to private investors who would preserve it and put it to new use. The council voted to withdraw $7 million from a health-care reserve account for current and future retirees in order to purchase, improve and maintain the warehouse. Once the site is sold, the money is to be returned to the account.

Our editorial board noted that while historic preservation was a noble idea, it came with great risk; city officials, we said, had to work diligently to identify prospective buyers and make a deal as soon as possible. The last thing the city needs is to saddle taxpayers with this property — and the cost of maintaining it — long term.

Some preservationists and city leaders, particularly Mayor Steve Benjamin, insisted this was a workable deal that wouldn’t take an inordinate amount of time and that there would be ample takers. At least for the moment, it appears that’s true.

We commend the Columbia Development Corp. and the committee that has worked to solicit bids for this project. The committee is expected to make a recommendation to City Council in a matter of weeks.

While no details are available, development corporation executive director Fred Delk said the proposals include student housing, traditional apartments, a hotel, offices and mixed uses. The corporation owns the building and is overseeing it on behalf of the city.

The nearly 100-year-old, 320,000-square-foot former cotton warehouse, which occupies prime real estate along Pulaski Street in the area of USC’s Innovista research campus, is in the National Register of Historic Places, which offers only minimal protection from demolition. City officials intend to grant the building landmark status to give it more protection.

The warehouse had been slated for demolition by the owners, who said they had tried to sell it for 25 years without success and finally gave up after a deal fell through with an Ohio developer who also wanted to raze the structure to build an 800-bed student housing complex.

The corporation purchased the building for $5.6 million and has spent less than $100,000 to prepare it for sale, primarily to complete structural, environmental and other studies that will be provided to a potential developer to help ensure that any redevelopment conforms to local, state and federal historic standards. Conforming to those standards will allow the developer to leverage substantial state and federal tax credits to help fund its renovation.

Obviously, this is far from a done deal. But if Columbia can pull this off and a private party successfully develops this property, it will stand as a good example of how, in some instances at least, historic preservation can help bolster local economies.

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