Panel won’t recommend Bull Street landmark status

The Columbia Planning Commission on Monday voted 4-3 against recommending three buildings on the sprawling S.C. State Hospital campus on Bull Street for city historical landmark protection. Those voting against the measure said it could have disrupted negotiations in one of the most significant land deals in city history.

Some commission members criticized City Council member Moe Baddourah, a candidate for mayor, for unilaterally raising the issue while city staff members are negotiating an agreement with a Greenville developer. That agreement, which will face two public hearings and two council votes, will include the preservation of historic buildings.

The planning commission’s vote is only a recommendation to council.

“I feel this is forced and inappropriate,” said commission member Gene Dinkins Jr.

Member Richard Cohn added: “I don’t like how this was shoved down our throats.”

Baddourah last month unexpectedly applied for landmark status for nine buildings without consulting the current or potential owners of the 165-acre tract. Then a few days later, without explanation, Baddourah deferred five of those requests, withdrew one and left three on the agenda.

Baddourah, in a rare appearance by a council member before the commission, said that the three buildings – the bakery, the laundry and the Ensor laboratory building – where not included in any previous preservation discussions, so he was unsure if they would be part of the development agreement.

He said he had not been briefed by city manager Teresa Wilson on her negotiations with developer Bob Hughes.

“I’m doing this because it’s the right thing to do,” he said in a work session before the regular meeting. “If we sign the development agreement, we can’t go back and save more buildings.”

Historic preservation has become a political issue in the mayor’s race between Baddourah, a restaurant owner and freshman council member, and first-term mayor Steve Benjamin.

It first became an issue when Benjamin applied for landmark status for the nearly century-old Palmetto Compress building in The Vista. Benjamin later withdrew the application, saying he didn’t want to set a precedent of asking for landmark protection for a building without the consent of the owner.

The city has since purchased the building for $7 million to keep it from being demolished, an action Baddourah and others have criticized.

Now, the owner of the Bull Street campus, the S.C. Department of Mental Health, is charging that Baddourah is posturing with the Bull Street deal to score political points, and could threaten the $15 million sale.

“This is unnecessary and politically motivated,” department deputy director Mark Binkley told commission members.

Even Baddourah’s presence at the meeting was controversial.

He was invited by the commission to explain his application and the way in which it was submitted. But city staff members would only allow him to speak in a specially called work session prior to the meeting. He left before the regular meeting.

Krista Hampton, the city’s director of planning and development services, said council members are “discouraged” from attending planning commission meetings to avoid any appearance that they are trying to influence their appointees.

Commission chairman Mark James said that Baddourah or any other council member who has business before the commission should be allowed to speak and answer questions. However, he was critical of Baddourah’s application, saying the city and the developer need room to negotiate.

“I don’t think anyone is dismissing the historically significant nature of these buildings,” he said. “But Mr. Baddourah’s comment that he would sacrifice the entire project for 30,000 square feet (the total size of the three buildings) seems a little rigid.”