The federal government plans to demolish the former Veterans Affairs regional office in downtown Columbia to make way for a parking lot, a move that upsets Mayor Steve Benjamin.
The agency moved its 400-employee regional office to a new site off Garners Ferry Road in 2009. But some call center employees originally remained in the five-story, 67-year-old building, at the corner of Assembly and Laurel streets near downtown’s main post office.
Now, however, the building is empty.
The U.S. General Services Administration, the landlord for federal buildings, is seeking bids for $2 million to $3 million in work to tear down and grade the downtown site to “create new surface suitable for a future parking lot,” according to a proposal.
But city leaders said the parcel – at a busy intersection, close to Finlay Park – could have better uses than a parking lot.
Benjamin’s office said the mayor sent emails last week to U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, asking for help to get the federal government to change its plans.
“This is an important building in an important location, and any planner knows the worst of all possible land uses is a parking lot on a prime corner location, particularly one overlooking Columbia’s premier public park,” Benjamin said in a statement.
Clyburn and Graham’s offices did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
The federal government’s proposal does not disclose what type of parking lot would be built on the site. The General Services Administration offered no new details on Tuesday.
Asked about the demolition proposal, agency spokeswoman Saudia Muwwakkil said the “GSA is examining all possible options for the future use of this facility as well as the site.”
A parking lot would run counter to Columbia’s downtown design guidelines for prominent corners in the city, said Fred Delk, director of the Columbia Development Corp.
“You wonder why they wouldn’t offer it for redevelopment,” he said.
Matt Kennell, president of Columbia’s City Center Partnership, said he has tried speaking with federal officials about their plans for the building but received no response.
“There could be private interest in buying the building for residential purposes,” he said.
John Sherrer, director of cultural resources for Historic Columbia, said a private developer might buy and reuse the 94,182-square-foot building, which sits atop a hill.
“It’s an iconic structure on one of the most prominent lots in the city,” he said. “The last thing you would want to do is make it a ... parking lot. That would be a major disservice.”
The federal government might be answering a need, though.
People going to the two buildings named after former U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, located next to the Veterans Affairs building, have to park on the street or in a garage at the corner of Richland and Assembly streets, said John Spade, Columbia’s parking services director. The two buildings house a Social Security Administration office.
“We get a lot of comments from people, especially the elderly, that they would like more parking near the (Thurmond) building,” Spade said.
While little is known about the General Services Administration parking lot plans, the proposal requires saving the agriculture-themed sculpture of five people, including Clemson University benefactor Thomas Clemson, at the entrance to the Veterans Affairs building.
The contractors hired are expected to package the sculpture, known as a bas-relief, into crates. The sculpture by artist Edmond Amateis will move either to the Strom Thurmond Federal Building or the adjacent former federal courthouse, next to the former Veterans Affairs building, according to the proposal.
“The sculpture is just a level of detail that would be a shame to lose,” Columbia architect Tom Savory said.