In 1994, when the city of Columbia announced it would spend millions of dollars to redevelop the Central Correctional Institution – the nastiest, most violent prison in South Carolina history – critics howled.
Why waste taxpayer money on a white elephant littered with dilapidated buildings and uncomfortable memories? they asked. It’s too big. It’s too scary. It’s too complicated. It will never work.
Today, those same questions are being asked about BullStreet, the project to redevelop the S.C. State Hospital, the Palmetto State’s former mental health institution.
“There are lots of parallels between the projects,” said former Mayor Bob Coble, who took the political heat for CanalSide two decades ago much as Mayor Steve Benjamin is taking the heat for BullStreet today. “But BullStreet is seven times as big.”
Both the prison and the asylum were/are big gnarly tracts of land fraught with expensive challenges. Both were/are sites of decades of human suffering that carry a dark past and a significant stigma.
But 23 years after “CCI” closed and the city began the redevelopment project, the final 339 apartments, many overlooking the river and projected to be the priciest in the Midlands, are under construction.
When the new Sola Station neighborhood is completed next year – CanalSide’s third phase – the development will boast a total of 713 apartments and about 1,000 residents.
The city spent $11.4 million to get the project going:
▪ $3.3 million to purchase the 25 acres of property from the state;
▪ $3.6 million to demolish the buildings and prepare the site for development; and,
▪ $4.5 million to build the Esplanade, a public park overlooking the Columbia Canal.
Charleston-based developer The Beach Co. purchased the property in 2006 for $6 million. It marked the end of 12 years of rancor in which the city couldn’t find a developer willing to take on the project and tried but failed to develop the property itself.
The risk has paid off
There were many starts and stops.
There was talk of turning the prison administration building into a hotel. Opening a casino on the property was contemplated. There was even a move by preservationists and others to keep the massive Cell Block 1 as a tourist attraction.
Initially, The Beach Co. planned to build single family homes and two luxury condo towers in addition to apartments. But the sub-prime U.S. mortgage crisis, which began in 2007 just as CanalSide was getting started, followed by the Great Recession, caused a market correction for the development before it even got started.
The project “was a long time in the works,” said The Beach Co. senior vice president Dan Doyle, who was the point man on CanalSide when it began. “It was a large project for a city at the time and we put a lot of time and energy into it and we still do to this day.”
But the risk has paid off, in terms of investment and generating property taxes.
Since the purchase in 2006, The Beach Co., which developed Kiawah Island and Isle of Palms among many other projects, has spent more than $100 million to build out the project. (The company won’t release exact investment figures, but the cost of Sola Station, CanalSide’s third phase, alone has been reported at $58 million.)
And since it acquired the property, the company has paid $4.45 million in property taxes, according to Richland County records, including more than $622,000 last year. That annual payment is expected to swell to $1.5 million a year when Sola Sation is completed next winter.
And that’s not to mention the water and sewer bills the individual residents of Canalside pay.
“All of these big projects require patience,” Coble said. “Market forces will change. But if you have a good location, a good product and a good developer, it pays off over time. We have that with CanalSide and BullStreet.”
It has been just three years since the Hughes Development Corp. agreed to develop the BullStreet campus. Like The Beach Co. and CanalSide, Hughes was the only developer willing to tackle the State Hospital site.
As with CanalSide, the long knives have come out because of the expense of the project, the theory behind it and a perceived lack of progress.
“Every project that we do has critics, and generally they are the same people every time,” Coble said, noting that projects such as the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center and the Gervais Street and Main Street streetscaping projects were heavily criticized, but have led to a revitalization of the capital city’s downtown.
“Think of where would be be if none of these projects had been done?” he said. “But we had people who hung in there and had the vision and now we’re seeing the fruits of those projects.”
Much more public money at stake
But with BullStreet, as with CanalSide, there have been early stumbles.
Most disconcerting to BullStreet boosters, a massive retail village — billed at 41 stores or more — has so far not come to fruition. Hughes Development has fired the original retail recruiter and is now taking a more “organic” approach to the village, letting it develop slowly, piece-by-piece rather than all at once.
Like CanalSide and the condo market, the bricks-and-mortar retail store landscape has changed because of online shopping. Fewer retailers are willing to invest in traditional stores.
But a big difference between BullStreet and CanalSide is the size of the project and the public money involved.
BullStreet, at 181-acres, is a full seven times as big as CanalSide. In fact, it is the same area as the Charleston peninsula below Broad Street and is zoned for the same amount of retail space as Greenville’s central business district.
And the public money involved in BullStreet is substantially higher:
▪ $29 million for a multi-purpose ballpark that is home to the Class A minor league baseball team the Columbia Fireflies. That money has already been spent;
▪ $31.2 million for public improvements such as streets, sidewalks, water and sewer and a 25-acre public park that is as big as Canalside itself. Of that, $19.2 million has alreary been spent; and,
▪ $36.2 million for two parking garages.
“And Hughes hasn’t, to date, asked for the parking garages,” said Gregory Tucker, the city’s special projects director.
Doyle, the CanalSide developer, said in the long run, the BullStreet project will have many challenges. He urged patience.
“BullStreet is a very large piece of property,” he said. “In terms of the general public wanting to see some immediate structures, development and retail ... the reality is those things are going to take much longer to put in place.
“If it was a 10-acre or 20-acre project, it would be easier to see that progression,” he said. “But when you are talking about a project of that size ... it’s simply going to take time to occur.”