Bull Street land deal struck

The Babcock Building on Bull Street is in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Babcock Building on Bull Street is in the National Register of Historic Places.

The S.C. Mental Health Department and Upstate developer Bob Hughes have reached an agreement on the purchase of the 165-acre State Hospital campus in Columbia.

However, the undisclosed price and payment terms still must be approved by the state Mental Health Commission. A decision could come as early as next month.

"We're just doing our due diligence before we present it to the board," mental health department attorney Mark Binkley said.

Efforts to reach Hughes and NAI Avant agent Gene Green, who is handling the sale, were unsuccessful Thursday.

Hughes has not publicly indicated his plans for the property. Mental health officials have said he is not bound by a 2005 plan built with input from the public that calls for more than 1,200 homes and about 900,000 square feet of office buildings and retail stores.

Binkley said the department staff has an "nonbinding" agreement with Hughes setting the price; but that price could be affected by the method of payment, such as installments.

"If we are not being paid a lump sum, then that goes to value," Binkley said. "The commission has to determine value."

The land is Columbia's largest in-town tract open for development. Its sale is one of the most anticipated and significant land deals in city history.

Mayor Bob Coble has called the redevelopment of the land and its historic buildings a major engine for downtown's continued growth - "Columbia's BMW."

The sale of the campus was revived by Gov. Mark Sanford in 2003, and planning began in 2004.

But the process bogged down in a state Supreme Court case that determined a trust represented by the S.C. Mental Health Commission controlled the property rather than the State Budget and Control Board.

As a result, any sale must be approved by a complicated set of courts and state agencies.

First, the deal must be approved by the Mental Health Commission.

Then the sale must pass muster with a circuit judge, who will rule whether the price is fair and whether the proceeds will be used for the treatment of the mentally ill.

Then the sale must be approved by the State Budget and Control Board.

"We have to convince all of them that this is a fair deal," Binkley said. "We have a lot persuading to do."

Also in question is a 2005 plan for the property developed by the firm of New Urbanism guru Andres Duany.

The plan called for 1,257 residential units - from single-family homes to condos and apartments - as well as 179,000 square feet of retail space and 638,000 square feet of office space.

Mental health officials have said they will sell the property without regard to the Duany plan. Their priority is getting the most money from a sale for the treatment of mental health patients.

However, financier Don Tomlin, who shepherded the Duany plan, said Hughes should stick with the plan because it will simplify permitting, zoning and other red tape.

"When have you ever had unanimous consensus on a land plan," he said. "This is certainly not a sword over the developer. In essence it is an entitlement to the developer."