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January 30, 2013

Columbia Council changes course on N. Main development

After hearing from about two dozen upset people for some three hours, the city council asked the organization that voted to sell the two-acre site to a Greenville developer to reconsider its decision.

Residents sent Columbia City Council a clear message Tuesday: Block the construction of a roughly 56-unit apartment complex on North Main Street that neighbors say would hurt the struggling community’s future.

Council responded – after hearing from about two dozen upset people for some three hours – by asking the organization that voted to sell the two-acre site to reconsider its decision.

Council does not own the property at 3700 North Main St., nor can it order the organization – the Columbia Empowerment Zone board – to kill the sale of its land, Mayor Steve Benjamin told the crowd in a nearly packed gymnasium at Hyatt Park.

But a unanimous council sent the board a clear message: Don’t proceed with the $240,000 sale to Greenville commercial development company Creative Builders Inc.

Company president Will McCauley outlined the amenities the complex would have, describing it as “like high-end, luxury condos” that would rent from $575 monthly to as much as $957 for the three-bedroom units. He said his company has built four similar complexes in metropolitan Columbia.

McCauley’s pitch did not satisfy the crowd, which largely objected to the location of the complex and the secrecy they say has surrounded the plan. North Columbia needs more businesses, not more residents, the speakers said.

“If we make a mistake here, this is a mistake that’s going to last for decades,” pleaded Ellen Fishburne Triplett, president of Hyatt Park/Keenan Terrace Neighborhood Association. “There is no erasing this.”

Sabrina Odom, director of the North Columbia Business Association, told McCauley that the community wants new investment. “But you need to make sure everything is in plain sight.”

Jason Curry, owner of a barbershop and beauty salon in nearby North Main Street Plaza reminded those who said they want more businesses that they don’t shop in many that take a risk by opening in the neighborhood.

“If you don’t support them, then you can’t be mad if they don’t come,” Curry said.

Some of the ire was aimed at the CEZ board. “I just can’t shake the notion that CEZ or people working for it have withheld information ... in order to suppress opposition,” Michael Hill said. He criticized the board for “a pattern of suspect behavior” in its management of federal money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Before the vote, Benjamin hinted that council might file an objection to the critical financing plan for the complex.

“We came to listen and will act accordingly,” Benjamin told the crowd. “We’ll do everything we can to support you.”

Prior to the vote, council appeared divided on whether to support the complex.

Councilman Sam Davis said the complex violates a years-old master development plan for north Columbia. Councilwoman Leona Plaugh questioned whether the proposal meets the HUD standards for disposing of assets.

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