Mayor on Bull Street: Public may weigh in, but plans are solid

06/25/2013 1:11 PM

08/23/2013 7:41 PM

The tentative agreement struck for the Bull Street neighborhood is unlikely to change despite Columbia City Council’s choice to hold two public hearings rather than the usual one, the mayor said Tuesday.

“If there’s something incredibly insightful, if there’s something new,” then the development agreement with Bob Hughes’ Hughes Development Corp. might change before final approval July 9, Steve Benjamin said during a news conference to announce the deal hammered out after 2½ years of negotiations.

“I hope we’re pretty close to being done,” he said during a Tuesday news conference when asked about pledges to listen to the community before the 130-plus-page agreement is formalized by council.

Such an agreement would be the first in the city’s history, said former city manager Steve Gantt. He called the document “virgin territory” for Columbia.

Standing at the steps of the red-domed, historic Babcock Building, Benjamin did not explain why council’s decision is being made so quickly after a decade of public discussions about the 181-acre property that is likely to transform the city center.

“It’s time to act,” was Benjamin’s response about a first vote planned for Monday and a final one about a week later. “The time is now.”

Historic Columbia Foundation director Robin Waites on Monday questioned the speed of the votes. “This has been a 10-year process,” Waites said of the original plans to create Columbia’s largest and most unique neighborhood. “To try to do this during the July fourth week ... is unrealistic,” she said. “This feels like it’s being forced on us.”

Council normally holds one public hearing on zoning changes and other major laws it is considering. This time, council opted for two hearings to give residents more opportunities to be heard.

Benjamin has said the agreement already reflects the voices of the preservationist and business communities. He repeated that assertion at the news conference while surrounded by city staffers, some of whom worked on the deal.

Benjamin called the vast urban redevelopment project “the largest east of the Mississippi and probably the nation.”

With its additions to the tax rolls and its impact on the residential, retail and business character of downtown, he said the new neighborhood will transform the Capital City into “one great Columbia.”

Tuesday’s public event drew two other council members from the seven-person City Council: Tameika Isaac Devine and Cameron Runyan. Neither made remarks during the 17-minute news conference.

Benjamin, who has been directly involved in the negotiation, provided no details when asked whether Hughes refused to meet some of the city’s requests in developing the property.

The mayor proclaimed that the neighborhood would receive, “The highest level of public safety protection.” Hughes has agreed to provide a police substation on the site, among other pledges.

Benjamin did not respond directly when asked how city leaders are preparing for the expenses of providing police, fire and other services to a neighborhood that Hughes has said might eventually have as many as 3,558 residential units and 3.3 million square feet of commercial property, including public buildings.

That is as specific as the developer has been publicly about what the neighborhood might look like.

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