As the city of Columbia prepares for construction of a long-anticipated downtown neighborhood along Bull Street, civic leaders must decide whether its story should remain rooted in the past or represent a contemporary Columbia.
Preservation advocates say the 181-acre campus tells the story of a South Carolina that was in the nation’s forefront in the 1820s when it began to provide mental-health services to citizens. Among the 55 buildings inside the institution’s brick walls are hospital wards, a chapel, mattress factory, bakery and laundry building – even a tract used as a Civil War prisoner-of-war camp that archaeologists long have wanted to explore.
“I want that property to be redeveloped, and I think (Bob) Hughes can do it,” said Robin Waites, director of the Historic Columbia Foundation. “But the city’s putting a lot of money into the development, and the city should be able to make a few demands.”
Still, Waites and others acknowledge they have little leverage.
For one thing, Hughes has agreed to preserve the most visible building on the campus. For another, the public may have little attachment to other buildings on the campus and its alleys of old trees since, as a mental hospital, it has remained mostly off limits to city residents.
And Mayor Steve Benjamin, a leader still honing his political image as he positions himself for a re-election campaign, is prepared to push ahead now.
Last week, after a decade of community conversations and study, Benjamin announced that he had reached agreement on a development plan with Greenville developer Hughes guaranteeing at least five buildings will be preserved – among them, the most familiar structure, the Babcock building, with its striking red cupola that can be seen for blocks.
The mayor has described the project in terms of its potential for new jobs, new residents and new activities.
“We’re firmly fixed on preserving and celebrating our heritage but, at the same time, committed to creating jobs and private investment in our city,” Benjamin said in an interview. “A lot of times, that’s a tough balancing act, but I think we’ve done a great job of balancing it.”
The mayor announced a schedule for City Council approval that would seal the deal with Hughes – and the city’s 20-year, multi-million-dollar investment in it – by July 9.
But Waites and others say the development agreement was finalized without coming back around to engage citizens.
And while the preservation community will fight to save at least two historically significant buildings left off Hughes’ list of five, Waites admits to being perplexed by what she sees as conflicting messages from City Hall in recent months.
The Bull Street property is the third controversy in the past year involving the demolition of Columbia landmarks, following the decision by church leaders to tear down the store once run by civil rights leader George Elmore along Gervais Street and a near-miss on the Palmetto Compress warehouse downtown.
Waites said renovating buildings once used as a laundry and a bakery for people institutionalized with mental illness would allow future generations to understand how the State Hospital grew into a separate community, walled off from the rest of Columbia. “At a minimum, I want those two buildings,” Waites said the day after Benjamin released a 130-plus-page agreement he characterized as a final draft of an agreement with the buyer.
Developer Richard Burts, who has become a spokesman for the economic value of old buildings, said the preservation community will argue to save buildings that take up one-third of an acre on the 181-acre tract.
Hughes has said through Bob McAlister, his local spokesman, that he won’t comment on the plan until after City Council approves it.
Waites said Historic Columbia will do its best to engage citizens in the discussion by sending mass emails and directing people to Facebook pages for detailed information.
But it’s going to be difficult to rally the troops, she said. “It just feels like the decisions have been made.”
The mayor seemed to say as much when asked about the pace of his plans. “It’s time to act,” he said at last week’s announcement.
Ellen Cooper, a downtown resident who city leaders appointed to a 2011 advisory committee on the project, said emails are circulating among people concerned about a planned ballpark, with its noise and traffic, as well as the loss of historic buildings.
Cooper has called a meeting of neighbors for Monday evening, after City Council’s first of two votes on the plan, but said she senses they have no recourse.
Old, new could co-exist
Most buildings on the campus are vacant, though the property still houses a children’s hospital that treats about 500 patients a year, said S.C. Department of Mental Health spokeswoman Tracy LaPointe.
Visitors are not allowed to walk the campus without permission. Gates are locked from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
The private nature of the property, in fact, means most people are unfamiliar with the architecture and groves of trees there.
“There are numerous historical assets on the site that many people don’t see behind the shadow of the Babcock,” said Mike Bedenbaugh, head of the Palmetto Trust for Historic Places. “Over the past several years, we have been doing our best to communicate their importance.”
Burts, who made his reputation by reclaiming an historic community center at 701 Whaley St., said arguments over historic preservation probably won’t have much effect at this point. “They’re probably protecting the vast majority of square footage and the most important historic structures,” Burts said.
Still, he said, buildings in what he calls the “core village” of the hospital property should be restored and allowed to coexist with Hughes’ new neighborhood.
Columbia investor Don Tomlin said the project is key to producing new revenues in a capital city where the majority of land is owned by non-taxed government entities, colleges and churches. But any benefits from Hughes’ investment will be tempered by the city’s 20-year commitment to paying for an estimated $70 million in projects and services at the site, Tomlin said.
He said Hughes needs to engage the public.
“The plan needs to be communicated when you’re asking for this kind of money,” Tomlin said. “It’s not about lobbying the public figures. It’s about communicating, and doing it openly and fully.”
In addition to the city’s advisory committee, of which Tomlin was a part, the city and state hired Miami-based planner Andres Duany to design a walkable urban neighborhood of offices, stores and homes – heavy on condos and light on retail – in 2005. The Duany plan, which involved the public, called for saving 17 of 55 buildings on the site.
Waites said she expected that to be the starting point for discussions on a development agreement with Hughes when he expressed an interest in buying the property four years ago.
Others feel no urgency
State Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, said Hughes’ involvement provides “some level of comfort,” because the Upstate developer has said he wants to save as many buildings as he can.
“There is not the same level of concern or sense of urgency there was with the Compress building,” Smith said, referring to the controversy over planned demolition of an historic warehouse this past spring.
A native South Carolinian, Hughes has projects scattered throughout downtown Greenville and has been a visionary for its active Main Street with its cosmopolitan atmosphere. He has had particular success finding new uses for old buildings but continues to integrate new buildings into the landscape as well.
Robert Lewis, a lawyer who has restored several old buildings in Columbia, said not many developers would take on a challenging project like the one on Bull Street.
“We have to do our best to try and work with the Bob Hughes group,” Lewis said. “With a project of this size and magnitude, we have to be realistic about what can be preserved.”
If you go
Council is to vote twice and hold two public hearings before the Bull Street agreement becomes final.
At least two members of City Council and various organizations in the city are calling for a delay in the votes. Council can postpone the public hearings without a vote, but it must publicly set new dates.
Historic Columbia in a year of public debate
The Bull Street property is the third high-profile debate over the demolition of Columbia landmarks in the past year.
After advocates pushed to save the Palmetto Compress building, one corporate sponsor declined to renew a donation to Historic Columbia.
Director Robin Waites confirmed the dust-up with Wells Fargo, calling it “insignificant in the grand scheme of things” but acknowledging it was the first time a corporate sponsor had withdrawn support over a preservation issue. She would not say more.
Josh Dunn, a spokesman in Charlotte for the bank, said Wells Fargo contributed $2,500 to Historic Columbia in 2012 and has not finalized its corporate donations list for this year. He would not comment further.
What’s planned for the Bull Street site
The 181 acres would feature three times as much rental housing as owner-occupied homes, enough retail to attract shoppers from outside the neighborhood and a small hotel. A minor league ballpark also is a possibility.
Plans are to build 3 million square feet of rented housing, 550,000 square feet of owner-owned homes and 580,000 square feet of retail, according to an economic impact analysis conducted for the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce.
The city would spend $70 million to help that come about, according to the proposed development agreement.