Skeptics raising questions about Bull Street deal

The final round of negotiations in laying the groundwork for the future of Columbia’s city center happened among a handful of bargainers in a grand, glass-enclosed room on the seventh floor of a downtown law office.

At the end of 7½ hours of hard-nosed talks, at 11:15 p.m. on June 19, City Hall leaders reached a long-delayed development agreement with Hughes Development Corp. of Greenville for a huge new neighborhood along Bull Street.

How the deal came together, however, and the lack of details about exactly what the city is pledging – including how the city would pay for sidewalks and water and sewer lines – have made many residents who have long been interested in the project uncomfortable. City leaders and representatives of the developer insist the deal is fair and realistic for the 181 mostly undeveloped acres in the heart of downtown.

Skeptics already are lining up to complain that the deal – which commits the city to a 20-year marriage with the Hughes company and some $70 million in public money – was not as transparent as the glass that surrounds the partners’ conference room at Nexsen Pruet’s headquarters.

Business leaders who a decade ago helped launch the effort to promote the sale of the state agency-owned site and urge its development into a Columbia showplace say they were not consulted about the agreement and worry the city is taking too much risk.

Historic preservation leaders and conservationists say they feel they were kept out of the process and are not happy with the agreement that City Council released to the public last Monday.

Two of the skeptics are City Council members who also want to delay council’s decisions. They said they did not know the June 19 meeting was to be a final negotiation. One of them, Councilman Moe Baddourah, said he was told he could not attend.

“They were supposed to bring it back to us on the ninth of July,” Baddourah said of a timetable council discussed in a closed-door session on June 18, the day before the critical meeting among Mayor Steve Benjamin, top city staffers and Bob Hughes’s team. Baddourah said he was told he could not attend.

Councilwoman Leona Plaugh, who missed the June 18 meeting, said she has a memo from the city manager showing a first vote was scheduled for Aug. 6.

Robin Waites, director of Historic Columbia Foundation, said council and Hughes need to be more transparent in spelling out details of his construction plans.

“If he’s asking this community to invest in this, it stands to reason that he should show us where the money is going to go.”

Benjamin, who brokered the city’s side of the bargain, counters that there’s been “significant public input.”

In announcing the agreement on Tuesday, he called for wide support. “The only way this project is going to succeed is with your help,” the mayor said.

None of the skeptics say they want to kill the deal with Hughes that would bring apartments, owner-occupied homes, enough retail to attract shoppers from outside the neighborhood, a small hotel and possibly, a baseball park.

But all question keeping the public at arm’s length throughout the negotiations. They wonder why City Council is moving so quickly, scheduling the first of two votes on the plan a week after announcing there was a deal following years of negotiations – and releasing few details about what the city will get for its $70 million.

Skeptics say they just want time to evaluate the deal.

“It appears very orchestrated to me,” Waites said of Monday’s scheduled first vote during the week of the Independence Day holiday.

Columbia businessman Joe Taylor, the state’s former commerce secretary and one of the early advocates for Bull Street’s redevelopment, was more blunt.

“It sounds to me like they want to do it when everybody is out of town,” he said.

Friday afternoon, Councilman Cameron Runyan circulated an email to Baddourah in which Runyan said, “I believe I speak for a majority of council in my belief that more delay on this issue does not serve the public interest.”

Later on Friday, Baddourah told The State newspaper, “From what I hear, nothing is going to change anything. They’ve got their four votes.”

The mayor steps in

Hughes’ team had grown weary late last year of how long the negotiations were taking, several people familiar with the talks said.

“Frustration – I think that’s an understatement,” said Mark Bickley, deputy director of the administrative division at the S.C. Department of Mental Health, which signed a contract in November 2010 to sell the property to Hughes.

Bickley said he has been in contact with Hughes and his team regularly throughout the sale and the talks with Columbia officials.

Members of Hughes’ team were upset that after delivering a first draft of the development agreement last summer, the city staff had not responded, Bickley said.

But the contract with the mental health agency is not in jeopardy, he said.

The agency granted Hughes two extensions on the sales contract. The latest is to expire July 31, Bickley said. But a third extension would have been considered. “This is not a deadline so firm that it’s an ultimatum.”

Hughes’ team, city staffers and council members have held dozens of meetings and an uncounted number of phone conversations about the master zoning plan for the property as well as the first-of-its-kind-for-Columbia development agreement, which spells out the commitments from both parties.

Ike McLeese, director of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, which backs the agreement, said a draft of the proposal “floated around a while.” He credited Benjamin with saving the deal.

“If it were not for the personal intervention of the mayor to move it along ... we would not be standing here today,” McLeese told a chamber crowd last week when his organization released an economic impact study that projects a $1.2 billion annual boon once the neighborhood is completed in 20 years.

Hughes did not respond to assertions that he considered walking away from the project. He has declined interviews until council gives its final OK to the development agreement.

His spokesman, Bob McAlister of Columbia, would say only, “Were there differences along the way? Sure. But the differences between the principals were manageable.”

Benjamin acknowledged that he stepped in last year as former city manager Steve Gantt was preparing to retire – and amid lingering public pressure for a specialized zoning agreement that, in the end, returned more control to the city.

The negotiators held a marathon session, then, too – in the same conference room.

“There were a number of major concerns that needed to be addressed ... that really required some hands-on mayoral involvement,” Benjamin said.

The critical session

The mayor, city manager Teresa Wilson and key Columbia staffers walked into the same conference room where months earlier they had faced Hughes and his formidable team over the zoning agreement that set the land-use parameters for the Bull Street neighborhood.

Nexsen Pruet and one of its partners, former longtime Columbia mayor Bob Coble, are representing Hughes’ company in its negotiations with the city. Each side had seven representatives, though Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine and Councilmen Runyan and Brian DeQuincey Newman stopped by for varying amounts of time, Coble said.

“The city came very much prepared,” said Coble, who was designated by Hughes to speak to The State newspaper on details of the negotiations and who was mayor when Hughes first considered buying the property.

“We reviewed it line by line, page by page. We had a lot of complicated legal issues,” Coble said.

The marathon session lasted from 3:30 p.m. to 11:15 p.m. The pace was broken only by Pizza Hut pizzas that Benjamin brought when he returned from a break for a speaking engagement.

“We all needed nourishment at that point,” the city manager said.

The two marathon sessions were called at key moments, which Benjamin called “high points ... points at which we needed to know, ‘Are we going to do this together?’

“When we weren’t around a table is when I was most concerned.”

The conversations were “often tense, always collegial,” the mayor said. Coble called them “frank but not contentious.”

“Some things went our way,” Benjamin said. “Some things went his way,” he said of Hughes. “My job was to find a way to connect those two worlds. ... We were endeavoring to be as business-friendly as possible ... but with all the accountability we could attach to it.”

The importance of the agreement was clear to everyone.

“It wasn’t a do or die,” Benjamin said. “This was a do.”

“It was momentous,” Coble said of the deal. “This is a 20-year-plus marriage. You’re going to have to get along every day to make it work.

“I came away thinking that this was a historic moment, that we had a win-win for the city of Columbia and, of course, for the developer,” he said.

Questions keep coming

Benjamin has said repeatedly since the development agreement was made public just under a week ago that it represents a broad constituency within the city.

He cites public hearings on the zoning plan, public forums over the years on the original design for the property by renown architect Andres Duany and innumerable face-to-face meetings with leaders in business, preservation and conservation circles.

Waites, of Historic Columbia, said the agreement breaks council’s word to preservationists in October 2009 when council said it would not close a deal on the property without an agreement with the developer to preserve 17 structures in the core of the Bull Street property. The agreement protects five.

“I think we were heard up to the point that the development agreement began to be put together behind closed doors,” she said. “When it came out Monday, I was really disappointed.”

Waites said the deal gives Hughes checkmate authority over protecting any other buildings on the site. Only the developer may request protections such as historic overlays or land marking anything else. The language reads: “... other protective measures for the project shall not be considered without the concurrence of the developer.”

Ryan Nevius, director of Sustainable Midlands, said environmentalists feel left out, too.

“There was not opportunity” to affect either the zoning or development agreements beyond comments at public hearings, she said. “The mayor made it very clear” they would not change either plan, Nevius said.

“Sustainable Midlands wants to see a developer who balances economics, conservation and what’s best for Columbia,” she said.

Businessman and developer Don Tomlin worked, along with Taylor, to get the ball rolling on the purchase and development of the property eight years ago.

Tomlin said he questions whether the agreement makes economic sense for the investment the city is about to make.

“You have to have confidence that the city fathers who negotiated it have negotiated a good agreement that will provide a good, controllable, guidable plan,” Tomlin said.

“I have to have confidence in the city fathers that the math makes sense.”

Former City Councilman Daniel Rickenmann was less kind. He also doubts whether the agreement strikes the right balance in risk between Hughes and the city.

“The way I read that development agreement, it was written by Hughes, not the city,” said the former chairman of council’s budget and finance committee.

Rickenmann also questioned the economic impact projections written by economist Harry Miley for the Chamber of Commerce. Miley’s analysis found the project would spin off $1.2 billion per year into the local economy after it is built out, among other boons he identified to the local economy.

“Harry Miley. Harry Houdini. They’re both magicians,” Rickenmann said.

What’s planned for the site

The 181 acres would feature three times as many rental units as owner-occupied homes, enough retail to attract shoppers from outside the neighborhood and a small hotel. A minor league ballpark also is a possibility.

Plans are to build 3 million square feet of rented housing, 550,000 square feet of owner-owned homes and 580,000 square feet of retail, according to an economic impact analysis conducted for the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

The city would spend $70 million to help that come about, according to the proposed development agreement.

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

Delays requested

At least two members of City Council and various organizations in the city are calling for a delay in the votes. Council can postpone the public hearings without a vote, but it must publicly set new dates.

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC