Developer Bob Hughes on Monday won his requested zoning for the 181-acre Bull Street neighborhood, but a fight is brewing with some of his would-be neighbors over the committee that would approve individual projects on the site.
A unanimous Columbia Planning Commission, with one member absent, endorsed the Greenville developers’ nearly 200-page zoning plan, which would be a new concept in the capital city. Hughes Development Corp.’s version of a “planned unit development,” would allow for combining residential and commercial projects in close proximity to each other through the use of “form-base” or “smart” codes.
Those codes would put strict parameters on projects in Hughes’ effort to create a pedestrian-friendly, back-to-the-future community that would look like towns before automobiles allowed people to live, work and shop in separate places.
If City Council adopts the commission’s recommendation, decisions about which projects to build or reject, where they would locate and the enforcement of the smart-code standards would be left to a five-member Consolidated Review Committee. Three of its members would be Bull Street developers or their designees, who would not have to recuse themselves if they have a financial interest in a project.
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Hughes proposed Monday that the other two members be the director of Historic Columbia Foundation and a representative of city government. The city’s planning and development director would be an adviser to the committee – not a voting member.
“It’s one-fourth of the city’s land mass and the city would no longer have any control or say-so on how it’s developed,” said Elizabeth Marks, president of the Robert Mills Historic District that abuts the Bull Street project.
“It operates as a city within a city,” Marks, who attended Monday’s meeting, said of the proposed committee. “Yet their decisions impact neighbors around them and they don’t have to answer (for the decisions).”
The Bull Street neighborhood would be the single-largest development in the city and would transform life near downtown Columbia, its backers say.
Marks and Ellen Cooper, who represents six neighborhoods, said they will lobby City Council to change the committee into one appointed by council and dominated by city representatives.
Several planning commission members also asked questions about the role and authority of the committee. Hughes seemed to satisfy their concerns by describing the committee as “a fancy homeowners association.” He said big decisions, such as approving a baseball stadium, would be made by City Council.
All commissioners, except Alex Alderman, who missed the meeting, voted for the composition that Hughes’ spelled out Monday in a two-hour session with city planning staffers prior to the commission’s vote. The commission held a work session Feb. 24 on Hughes’ zoning proposal, including his call for the oversight committee. At that time, Hughes’ plan was silent on its makeup.
Commissioner Josh Eagle, a USC professor, asked if a vote should be postponed until Hughes discloses more details of what the whole development will look like. No one on the commission spoke in support of Eagle’s proposal to wait.
During Monday’s meeting with Hughes’ team, city planning and development director Krista Hampton said she winnowed her questions about the project from about 40 items down to four. Those concerns include:
• Requiring Hughes to pay for a study on how traffic in the Bull Street neighborhood would affect surrounding neighborhoods and city streets
• Asking Hughes to spell out ways he would slow traffic speeds inside the property and discourage motorists from turning its interior streets that connect to city roads into commuter short cuts for people who live elsewhere
• Clarifying which body, City Council or the committee, would decide changes in land use, such as where a movie theater would be located.
Allowing city staffers to review certain standards such as landscaping or design of thoroughfares, for example.
City Council is scheduled to hold a March 27 public hearing on the zoning recommendation. Council then must vote twice before the plan that would guide the project would become law. The earliest that is likely to happen is April 3, Hampton said.