Columbia reaches key agreement with developer for vast Bull Street neighborhood

The Babcock (Administration) Building on the South Carolina Department of Mental Health campus along Bull Street is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Babcock (Administration) Building on the South Carolina Department of Mental Health campus along Bull Street is on the National Register of Historic Places. The State

The long-awaited agreement that spells out Columbia’s public investment in the proposed Bull Street neighborhood carries a price tag that likely will reach $70 million, but it includes pledges by the developers to produce what they propose.

City Council will vote during the next two weeks on the 130-plus-page document and on an initial commitment of at least $31.25 million in public money during a 20-year construction schedule.

First-blush reaction from some community leaders to Monday’s release of the development agreement for the massive, mixed-use project is favorable. But already, doubts and objections are surfacing.

“It’s a bold move forward,” said Mayor Steve Benjamin, who has been involved in face-to-face negotiations with Greenville developer Bob Hughes and Hughes’ team. “Bull Street is going to require the people of Columbia to think bigger about our future.”

Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce director Ike McLeese called the agreement “a game changer” that will bring new, higher-end retailers and likely another high-rise building to a more vibrant downtown.

But Robin Waites, director of Historic Columbia Foundation, said she’s disappointed in the terms of the agreement and the speed of plans to adopt an agreement that has been discussed for a decade.

“We’re being asked as a community to put a lot of money into a project without time to vet it,” she said. “It’s putting the community at a great disadvantage in terms of trying to determine the future of this site.”

Elizabeth Marks, president of the nearby Robert Mills Historic District neighborhood, said she’s pleased but still skeptical.

“This is wonderful,” Marks said of preliminary reports she has received about the agreement with Hughes. “But what the heck is he going to do with the property? What does it look like? In other words, what are we paying for?”

The media-shy developer will not discuss details of the plan publicly until after City Council has given final approval, his spokesman, Bob McAlister, said Monday.

But Benjamin, who has held meetings with Hughes for months, said construction might begin before the end of the year.

“I would not be surprised if he is moving dirt in the third quarter,” Benjamin said, adding that Hughes has received “significant interest” from large-scale and national tenants. Neither he nor McLeese would name them.

The Bull Street mixed-use neighborhood, estimated to have a $1 billion economic spinoff on Columbia, is likely to transform the capital city, according to an analysis the chamber is expected to release Thursday.

City officials advertised the agreement in The State newspaper Monday, as required by law in advance of the first City Council vote. That vote is set for Monday, July 1, and will be followed by a final vote Tuesday, July 9.

Residents will be permitted to comment on the plans during both meetings.

The agreement contains benchmarks that Hughes must meet for the public money to continue to flow into construction of utilities, roads and other upgrades, including possibly a $20 million baseball stadium, Benjamin said. Construction of a ballpark will require private investment as well as public money, he said.

The initial portion of the $31.25 million, or $15.4 million, will be spent on phases one, two and three of a four-phase construction plan.

To get the remaining $15.8 million for the final phase, Hughes will have to commit to $5 in economic development for every $1 the city invests.

To get the full $31 million, the developer will have to show an $81.25 million return on that investment, the city said.

The city is committing to build two parking garages with a total of 1,600 spaces on the site, but only when Hughes or other private developers commit to benchmarks.

For example, the first garage will be hinged to any of three private investments: a commitment to rehabilitate the large Babcock Building that is the architectural centerpiece of the property; construction of 120,000 square feet of property; or a commitment to build a baseball stadium, Benjamin said.

A ballpark would have to be designed for uses beyond baseball, including concerts and high school events, he said. It also will require private investment by the developer or the team owners, but Benjamin would not be specific. Benjamin said he has met with the commissions of the Sally and Carolina leagues. But no agreements have been reached about a minor league team that would move to Columbia.

The agreement does not place a dollar figure on the stadium. City officials have said repeatedly the price is likely to be at least $20 million. USC’s baseball park cost $36 million and is about to undergo $5 million in repairs.

A second parking garage will require the developer to have purchased half of the 181-acre site and secured $75 million in private investment.

Hughes also has agreed to provide a police substation on the property, land to construct a water pump station to maintain water pressure in the area and to conduct a tree survey for each section before it is developed, Benjamin said.

The development agreement does not commit Columbia to specified sources of money for the public investment, the mayor said. “That will have to be a complete separate, public discussion,” he said.

However, Benjamin said he prefers drawing revenue from the water and sewer fund to pay for water and sewer lines and from the stormwater fund to install that system.

The stormwater fund will pay to upgrade Smith Branch, a creek that meanders through the property that is bounded by Calhoun, Bull and Harden streets and Colonial Drive on the north. Portions of the creek that run through underground pipes will be dug up to improve its appearance. The 181-acre site is owned by the state Department of Mental Health, which has a sales contract with Hughes.

A tax increment financing plan specific to the property remains under discussion, Benjamin said.

He stressed that the agreement does not contain “tax breaks” or “sweetheart deals.”

The president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, Jim Morris, heard an overview of the agreement from a reporter Monday.

“It sounds to me that the city has made a pretty good deal,” Morris said by phone from out of town. “There’s more in this for the city than I hoped was going to be possible.” He is referring to preservation of some buildings and trees and upgrades in Smith Branch.

Waites of Historic Columbia said she’s read the agreement and is disappointed it does not protect more of the 17 buildings that City Council once considered for preservation.

“The city will not be able to landmark or put any other protections on any other buildings unless the developer initiates it,” she said of any other structures than the five buildings, which date to the mid-1880s, that are spelled out in the agreement. Those to be saved are the main portion and north and south wings of the Babcock Building; the male and female dining halls; the Williams Building once used to treat addiction; and the Chapel of Hope.

Hughes has agreed to allow the city time to move the bakery, the laundry and the Ensor building if he cannot save them.

A frustrated Waites said, “It feels like this is being forced on us. I hope a lot of folks in the community will come together and say, ‘We need to get this right.’ We only have one opportunity to get this right.”


Here are the major provisions of the development agreement between city leaders and Greenville developer Bob Hughes to construct a huge neighborhood in the heart of Columbia. City Council plans to vote on the multimillion-dollar commitment in public money during two meetings in early July.


Public money

$31.25 million for water, sewer, stormwater lines, roads and lighting during four construction phases of the neighborhood during a 20-year period.

• The first $15.4 million will be spent on construction phases one, two and three.

• The remaining $15.8 million will be for phase four, with financial commitments from the developer.

Private money

$81.25 million return in private investment to get the full $31.25 million in public dollars.

• To get the second installment from the city, the developer must commit to making $5 in economic development for every $1 the city puts into phase four.


Public money

Two parking garages with a total of 1,600 spaces. The agreement does not contain a price tag, but estimates have put the public cost at about $20 million.

Private money

To get the first garage, developers will have to do one of three things; construct at least 120,000 square feet of property; rehabilitate the Babcock Building; construct a baseball stadium.

To get the second garage, developers must have purchased half of the site’s total 181 acres or must have secured $75 million in private investment.


Private money

Developer is to provide a police substation on the property, installing a pump station to provide pressure for the area’s water system and conducting a tree survey before building each phase of the project.


•  Developer agrees to preserve several buildings on the property: The Babcock Building, including its north and south wings; the former dining halls for men and women; the Williams Building; the Chapel of Hope; the row of mature magnolia trees that lead to the Babcock Building.

Funding sources

•  City Council has yet to decide precisely how it will pay for the utilities and amenities. A tax-increment finance plan is still on the table for the Bull Street development, but not in concert with the north Columbia area, Mayor Steve Benjamin said.

SOURCE: Development agreement with Hughes Development Corp. and city officials

If you go

Council is to vote twice and hold two public hearings before the Bull Street agreement becomes final.

First meeting

When: Monday, July 1, at 2 p.m.

Where: Eau Claire print building, 3907 Ensor Ave. at Monticello Road

Second meeting

When: Tuesday, July 9, at 2 p.m.

Where: Earlewood Park Community Center, 1113 Parkside Drive

By the numbers

$31.25 million

Commitment to install water, sewer, roads, etc.

$20 million

Estimated cost of two parking garages

$20 million

Estimated cost of a baseball stadium

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