Bull Street Commission sees progress, urges patience

Bull Street developer talks about progress

Bull Street developer Robert Hughes talks about progress
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Bull Street developer Robert Hughes talks about progress

Most members of the Bull Street Commission, a seven-member board appointed by Columbia City Council, said Monday that they are satisfied with progress at the former State Hospital despite raised expectations of a sprawling retail complex that so far have not materialized.

“I still feel the project is coming along at a reasonable pace,” said member Rebecca Haynes, a former president of the Earlewood Community Citizens Organization. “I think it’s way too early in a 20-year project for anyone to start throwing stones.”

But one member, Ellen Cooper, president of the Coalition of Downtown Neighborhoods, said she thinks the project is moving too slowly.

“I’ve been disappointed that more has not happened over there,” said Cooper, a new commission member who lives in nearby Cottontown. “They are doing a good job, but it seems like it’s moving so slowly.”

BullStreet, as the redevelopment project of the old State Hospital campus is known, covers 181 acres and is considered the biggest land deal in Columbia’s history. Hughes Development Corp. of Greenville is serving as master developer of the project, developing some aspects itself and doling out others to other developers.

The commission is intended to be a liaison between Hughes and City Council and the public. But Monday’s meeting was the first in two years, even though by charter the commission was to meet every month.

Member John Dozier, who live across Calhoun Street from BullStreet, said the members didn’t have very much to talk about until a recent flurry of announcements for projects ranging from townhouses to senior housing to a new University of South Carolina medical school on the site. Just last Thursday, The State reported that Bone-In Barbeque would move into the Ensor Building, the hospital’s former morgue and research laboratory.

“Meeting for the sake of meeting isn’t productive,” the USC administrator said.

Also affecting the commission was the resignation from City Council last year of its chairman, Brian DeQuincey Newman. Newman pleaded guilty to charges of failing to file income tax returns and failing to pay state taxes on more than $200,000 in unreported income in 2012 and 2013.

Monday’s meeting was scheduled at the request of new City Council member Daniel Rickenmann, who replaced the late Leona Plaugh in December.

“We need to be involved more as a community,” Rickenmann said. “We’re in a public-private partnership ... and we have a great deal invested. The community needs to be involved ... today, tomorrow and down the road.”

Howard Duvall, who was elected to an at-large seat two years ago, volunteered to be the commission’s new chair. He said he is satisfied with the pace of development for a project of that size.

“You can’t put up something that large that quickly,” he said.

Duvall suggested that the reason some are dissatisfied with the pace was that Hughes Development’s retail recruiter, Hughes Commercial Properties, raised expectations by announcing a massive retail complex too early in the game. Hughes Commercial Properties is a separate company owned by Hughes Development owner Bob Hughes’ cousin Jackson.

But, Duvall said, “we’ve got a lot of positive things to support and this commission needs to be the cheerleader for that.”

BullStreet is zoned for more than 3.3 million square feet of commercial space and more than 3,500 residential units, making it one of the largest development sites in South Carolina. With a 20-year timeline, BullStreet is anticipated to have a $1.2 billion annual economic impact on the region once completed.

In his presentation to the commission, Hughes Development president Robert Hughes, Bob Hughes’ son, said that the project is ahead of schedule. He noted that Bull Street is about the same size as Columbia’s existing central business district.

“We’re exactly three years into the 20-year development, which is about 15 percent of the way,” Hughes said. “We have 110 acres of the 181-acre site under contract or under development, which is a major milestone. That’s about 65 percent of the site in 15 percent of the time.”

He also reassured the commission that Hughes Commercial is still working on the retail aspect of the project, noting that his father was meeting with the recruiters Monday, and “they are still optimistic” announcements will be forthcoming from retailers.