Architect Scott Garvin has a passion for historic buildings.
He has tackled big challenges like converting the former Olympia and Granby textile mills into apartments. His offices are in a renovated Civil War-era building at Gervais and Lincoln streets that now houses a Starbucks. And he is turning the three 1860s buildings that used to make up the old City Market Antiques Mall into three restaurants.
But perhaps Garvin’s most challenging and innovative project to date is converting the mammoth Palmetto Compress Warehouse at Devine and Pulaski streets into an apartment building, which was deemed impossible by developers for nearly three decades.
“It’s fun to understand the history of buildings and put them back together,” he said during an exclusive tour for The State newspaper last week.
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The cotton storage facility two blocks from the Colonial Life Arena will have 197 apartments; a ground-level pool; 12,000 square feet of retail space; and rebuilt porches on the side of the building that faces the University of South Carolina campus. A five-story, “400-ish” space parking garage is also planned for a location across Devine Street, Garvin said.
The building is big – 320,000 square feet – “which is exactly a half city block,” said Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corp., which encourages and guides investment in the Vista. It brokered the sale of the warehouse after a contentious debate over whether it should be razed to make way for more modern development.
The best ideas
The building had been slated for demolition after years of its longtime owners saying they could find no one able to redevelop it at a reasonable cost. But it was purchased for approximately $6 million by Philadelphia developer Ron Caplan’s PMC Property Group, the same company that bought the Olympia and Granby mills and hired Garvin to renovate them.
The century-old warehouse sits within blocks of four major student housing projects and was almost torn down to make way for one of them. Edwards Communities Development Co. of Columbus, Ohio, had planned to raze it for private student housing. The plan set off a roiling two-year battle among the owners, the developers and preservationists that ended only when a divided Columbia City Council stepped in to save the historic warehouse, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The owners, in sometimes bitter clashes with preservationists, asserted that for 26 years they tried to market the property to developers, but none was willing to reuse the building because of the cost. The fight also caused a rift between the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, which backed the demolition, and Historic Columbia, which helped lead the charge to save it.
The city, through its Columbia Development Corp., purchased the century-old building for $5.65 million in 2013, using a line of credit controversially backed by employee health insurance reserve funds. The profit from the sale to Caplan covered the city’s expenses for securing the structure after the purchase and other outlays, Delk said.
“We had five proposals for reusing the property,” Delk said. “They came with the best ideas and the most experience.”
Preserving the details
Caplan is now leveraging historic tax credits for a $100 million face-lift.
The complex, called Apartments at Palmetto Compress, should be completed by midsummer, just in time for University of South Carolina students arriving for the fall semester. However, the apartments will be marketed to everyone.
The work includes:
▪ Leveling off sloping floors.
The floors were deliberately sloped to the outside so that water from sprinklers would easily drain if needed to extinguished a fire, which was a real danger in textile mills because of the highly flammable cotton. The slope also allowed workers to more easily trundle the smoldering bales out of the warehouse through wide bay doors.
▪ Replacing large, wooden, exterior decks that once allowed access to the upper stories
The massive decks were used to transport bales into the three-bay, five-story warehouse. Garvin will make the decks into individual, private balconies.
▪ Cutting windows and doors in the east wall.
Usually, the city, state and federal governments won’t allow much alteration of the exterior of an historic building. However, they are allowing the openings, which are needed to allow required daylight into the apartments on the east side of the building.
▪ Installing a light well from one end of the massive building to the other.
This is the biggest challenge of the project. It involves trying to turn the center of the building into a giant, open-air atrium, which would allow daylight into apartments in the interior of the building. If they are not allowed to leave the ceiling open, it will likely be turned into a covered atrium.
▪ Keeping the heart pine floors.
The floors will become the ceilings of the units below them, and they will be left exposed. Other elements of the building – such as the sliding metal bay doors – will also be left intact as a nod to the warehouse’s past.
“The best things are the details,” Garvin said. “You just need to leave them alone. Our job is to just not mess it up.”
Apartments at Palmetto Compress
▪ 320,000 square feet total
▪ 12,000 square feet of retail
▪ 400-space parking garage
▪ 363 beds
▪ 193 units
▪ 100 two-bedroom units
▪ 58 one-bedroom units
▪ 35 three-bedroom units