City approves historic Bull Street development

A divided Columbia on Tuesday entrusted its geographic heart to a Greenville developer.

City Council voted 4-2, with one member absent, to commit at least $31.25 million to the construction of what promises to be a huge new neighborhood along Bull Street where residents can walk or bike through piazzas to shops, offices and perhaps a minor league baseball park.

The final vote came after a largely civil, but sometimes tense six-hour public hearing inside the city’s newest public community center at Earlewood Park.

Symbolically, the deal with Hughes Development Corp. was reached under stormy skies. Rain intermittently pelted the rooftop and walls of glass windows of a 1,700-square-foot room that was overflowing with the capital city’s citizenry.

“This process is not supposed to be easy,” said Mayor Steve Benjamin, who led the push to close the development agreement with Bob Hughes on July 9 and no later. Council, by another one-vote margin, beat back a second attempt at midafternoon to delay the binding vote.

“At some point, we’ve got to move forward boldly,” the mayor said shortly after 8 p.m. when the clinching vote was cast. “We can do it and we can do it together,” Benjamin said of making the neighborhood a showcase for the city.

Councilwoman and former Columbia city manager Leona Plaugh spoke for those who have lined up to ask council to go slower.

“This is a sad day in the city of Columbia,” Plaugh said. “We talk about a legacy (for the city) and we’re handing over our legacy to a private developer with very little (public) oversight.

“We don’t know what his (construction) plan is and neither does the public. And we don’t know how we’re going to fund it. The financial challenge, as I see it, is not the long term. It is the short term.”

Developer speaks

After the decision was made, Hughes issued his first statement about the deal. “It was important for Columbia – government leaders and their constituents – to have a family-like discussion about their future as it relates to the development agreement. As a result, many changes were made to the first draft. I chose not to engage in the public discussion because I felt it was important that those who live in Columbia make their own decision.

“The next step,” he wrote, “is for Hughes Development to complete the process of purchasing the (181-acre) mental health property, which will begin immediately.

“We will accomplish (construction of the neighborhood) while maintaining a reverence for this unique historical site.”

The four steadfast votes for the deal were Benjamin and councilmen Sam Davis, Brian DeQuincey Newman and Cameron Runyan. Councilman Moe Baddourah voted with Plaugh. Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine left the meeting about 4 p.m. to keep a commitment she said she had made long before Tuesday’s meeting was scheduled.

The agreement commits the city to the $31 million in public aid for water and sewer lines, streets and other utilities and possibly an additional $40 million for two parking garages and the baseball stadium that would double as a concert and civic-function venue. The deal also saves from demolition five major buildings on the nearly 200 year-old state mental health facilities campus. But the agreement leaves most the remaining 40 without any protection.

The local Chamber of Commerce projects the neighborhood will eventually spin off $1.2 billion into the regional economy; create 11,000 permanent jobs and produce $20 million in new revenue for schools and Columbia and Richland County governments.

Former Richland County legislator and county Councilwoman Candy Waites buried her head in her hands as the votes were counted.

Well more than three dozen people spoke during the hearing at which the crowd spilled into a hallway and a foyer and a kitchen that serve the community center that opened this spring.

Waites, who does not speak out often on public issues, blistered Hughes and City Council members who backed the deal.

“You are doing irreparable damage to the public trust when you don’t share information that is going to affect our lives for years and years and years to come,” Waites said of council’s unwillingness to include the financing sources in the agreement or to outline them publicly.

“It is a dark day when elected officials spend tens of millions of dollars without revealing the source of the funds,” said Waites, the mother of Historic Columbia Foundation director Robin Waites. “I have a right and I have a responsibility to know the total cost and where you expect to get the funds to pay for this project.”

Council for the first time discussed publicly the prospect of using several funding options. But no decisions were made.

As the retired public official rose to speak, she insisted that anyone in the room representing Hughes identify themselves and respond to questions.

Three members of his negotiating team introduced themselves: Demetri Baches, an urban planner; Leighton Lord, Hughes lead attorney in the talks; and fellow Nexsen Pruet law firm lawyer Tommy Preston. None made public comments but met frequently with city staffers to further refine the agreement.

Earlier Tuesday, by a 4-3 vote, City Council rejected a push to delay the final vote. Devine was the third vote seeking a postponement.

Changes in the project

Council adopted a series of changes since the first vote on July 1. The highlights of those include:

In a move that council said was made to ease concerns that the public would be left out of future decisions about the neighborhood, an advisory committee is to be created to monitor that Hughes has kept his commitments to the city.

The panel is to be comprised of representatives of adjoining neighborhoods, historic preservationists, the business community, a minority business owner and a member of City Council. The advisory committee is not part of the development agreement.

Paying for Bull Street

Columbia’s chief financial officer, Jeff Palen, released a broad outline of the ways by which council could pay for the initial expenses of Bull Street.

Council could use general obligation bonds, a second hospitality bond or draw money from the city’s stormwater and water and sewer funds. Palen’s list includes the possibility of tax increment financing, commonly called a TIF.

The working figures are:

“We will probably not fund the whole project from one (source of money),” Palen told council. “We have a lot of tools.

“The goal is not to eat the whole apple (but) ... to take a bite at a time.”