January 4, 2013

Student housing project advances

A Chicago firm has purchased the 21-story Palmetto Center on Main Street in Columbia, propelling forward its plans to convert the 400,000-square-foot former office building into housing for 800 college students.

A Chicago firm has purchased the 21-story Palmetto Center on Main Street in Columbia, propelling forward its plans to convert the 400,000-square-foot former office building into housing for 800 college students.

Construction is expected to start soon on the $50 million to $80 million renovation project, which should be completed by August 2014, Benjamin Modleski, chief operating officer of Core Campus LLC, told The State on Thursday. The building has been empty since September 2009, when SCE&G moved its 900 employees to a campus in Cayce.

The renovation project faces a final hearing before the city’s Design, Development Review Commission Thursday. If approved, it will be the project’s final regulatory hurdle.

Little opposition to the project has arisen since the company presented a security plan to City Council last fall. Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said it was another step in Main Street’s “transformation.”

“The Palmetto Center has always been that missing link in our vision for Main Street,” he wrote in an email. “Now, with this project set to add as many as 800 emerging young professionals to the mix, we’re looking at a whole new level of possibilities reverberating from our central business district throughout the entire city and it’s very exciting.”

The Core Campus project — called The Hub on Main Street — is the first of a wave of student housing being built downtown. In addition to the 800 students apparently headed for Main Street, there are three other projects on the horizon that are expected to bring a combined 1,900 students to the area around the University of South Carolina in the next few years.

•  Monarch at USC, a 600-bed, $60 million project on a vacant site at Huger and Blossom streets, was the first of the large projects to gain regulatory approval. Monarch Chief Executive Officer Shannon King told The State they plan to close on the property owned by developer Ben Arnold in early March and begin construction shortly after.

“We are down the path and excited about being the gateway to the university,” she said.

•  Ohio-based Edwards Communities also plans a large student housing development on Blossom Street, adjacent to the Monarch project. However, plans for the 800-bed, $40 million complex was turned back by the city’s design board last month for not complying with USC’s Innovista Design Guidelines.

Board members objected to the single-use, suburban style design in what should be a high-density, mixed-use district. The project has also generated furious opposition from preservationists and others because it includes the demolition of the five story Palmetto Compress warehouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Steve Simonetti, Edwards vice president of land acquisition and development, told The State on Thursday that developers have requested a rehearing from the design board and have asked legal counsel for advice.

“We have engaged counsel to support us in getting a rehearing for the project,” he said. “We were impressed and respectful of the organized effort by those whose ultimate goal is to keep that (Palmetto Compress) building. But we were surprised that that appeared to be a significant focus of that hearing. We did not think we were there to defend the demolition of the building and we didn’t get much time to talk about the plan.”

USC also is looking at grabbing a piece of the off-campus housing market by building a 500-bed dorm combined with classroom space for $35 million in the parking lots of the Colonial Life Arena, which is within walking distance of the Palmetto Compress and Monarch projects. That project has yet to go through city review.

The Palmetto Center had become a monolithic white elephant in the state capital’s downtown after it was abandoned by SGE&G four years ago. Its redevelopment will be more than a boon to Main Street’s emerging art, entertainment and shopping scene; it also will take 400,000 square feet of outdated office space off the market, said Billy Way of Grubb Ellis/Wilson Kibler, who brokered the sale for previous owners.

“This will benefit owners of other competing office buildings due to the reduced supply of available space,” he said

The sale of the building closed Dec. 28. Neither Modleski nor Way would divulge the sale price and the sale was not yet reflected on the Richland County online transaction records.

“This is a game changer for Main Street, something totally different,” said Matt Kennell, chief executive of the City Center Partnership business improvement district, which encourages and guides development in the central business district.

“We’re going to put 800 bodies on the street — triple the number of people that live on Main Street now,” he said. “It’s younger people with disposable income. It’s new energy and will have a big impact on downtown.”

Core Campus plans to retrofit 258 units with plumbing and other residential requirements. It also plans to convert basement space in the building into 88 parking spaces and 215 bicycle spaces. Another 338 spaces are to be available through contract in the 908-space city-owned Sumter Street garage attached to the building.

Core Campus’ plans for the garage to include a resort-style amenity deck on a portion of the top floor of the parking deck to serve the residents, which would include a pool, hot tub, sand volleyball court, grills and other offerings. A large green screen will provide privacy to the patrons and downtown neighbors, according to the company.

Planned indoor amenities for the project include a fitness center, steam rooms, yoga, conference and club rooms, and a study lounge, among others, most of which are planned for the 11th floor of the building, city documents say. Retail space is planned for the street level.

Building access will be by electronic card, and security cameras are to be installed in all common areas of the building, with the garages getting upgraded lighting features, according to the company.

Core Campus has projects under construction for occupancy in 2013 at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., and the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss. The company is also developing at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz., for fall of 2014.

“We’ve always had our eye on the Columbia market,” Core Campus’ Modleski said in an email. “The school has had solid enrollment growth and we believe that both the city and the university will see increased growth for many years to come. … There is no better location where students are just steps from classrooms, steps from the restaurants, shops and nightlife, and can enjoy amazing views of the city of Columbia.”

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