New Columbia City Hall? Possibly, but with retail, residences, too

Columbia’s City Hall, designed in 1870, could have a new municipal complex as a neighbor on Main Street as the city hopes to consolidate its offices and possibly incorporate private businesses and residences in a mixed-use development.
Columbia’s City Hall, designed in 1870, could have a new municipal complex as a neighbor on Main Street as the city hopes to consolidate its offices and possibly incorporate private businesses and residences in a mixed-use development. sellis@thestate.com

Columbia leaders want to build a new City Hall complex that could be much more – including, possibly, residential and retail space and even a long-discussed public transportation hub.

Imagine living beside the mayor’s office on Main Street. Or ducking into a zoning board hearing and, having had your fill of municipal fun, ducking back out to shop or eat.

And imagine a bit more: This could all be in one of the tallest buildings in Columbia.

The city has asked developers to pitch their ideas for the project and hopes to form a public-private development partnership.

“There are no knowns at this point,” assistant city manager Missy Gentry said. “Don’t get scared at what you think may be. All we’re doing is exploring the possibilities.”

Given the space needs for city offices alone, plus the possibility of private businesses and residences, the project has skyscraper potential, said Gentry and Mayor Steve Benjamin.

The city needs about 300,000 square feet of offices to prepare for future growth, Benjamin said – about double what it currently occupies. That could translate to a 15-story or taller building, just to accommodate the public-sector space, Benjamin said.

By comparison, the 450,000-square-foot Hub student apartment building stands 21 stories on Main Street, and the 320,000-square-foot Bank of America building near Elmwood Avenue rises 18 stories.

At 300,000 square feet, the price tag for a new city office complex might be around $120 million, estimates John Holder, an Atlanta-based developer whose Columbia footprint includes the Aspyre and 650 Lincoln student apartments, the IBM Innovation Center at USC and the Main & Gervais officer tower.

“It’s a big undertaking” and makes sense for the city to seek a development partner, Holder said.

Efficiency and vitality

The main reason to pursue the project is to consolidate city offices that are spread among seven downtown buildings, some of which are leased and some owned by the city, and to prepare enough space for possible growth in the city’s workforce as the city’s population and needs expand.

“The purpose of the whole discussion ... is to eliminate the leases we have that we’re paying annual expenses out of the taxpayer budget,” Councilman Moe Baddourah said. It will likely be more economical for the city to build and occupy its own office building than to continue paying rents for downtown office spaces, he said.

And rental rates for offices downtown are at all-time highs.

As a bonus, Gentry said, the city would be able to sell some of its other office properties and get them back on the tax roll.

Beyond meeting city business needs, though, incorporating city offices into a mixed-use development could push revitalization and energy farther up Main Street, to the 1700 and 1800 blocks. Plus, a mixed-use component could entice developers to buy into a public-private funding partnership, Gentry said.

“It would at least be wise to see if this public investment could be used strategically to bring private-sector capital to the northern end of Main Street,” said Benjamin, who envisions ground-level retail and private businesses sharing the complex with the city.

The nearly seven acres being considered for development are split between two sites in the 1700 and 1800 blocks of Main and Sumter streets, straddling Laurel Street – land the city already owns.

Half sits catty-corner to the current City Hall, on a swath that includes the former United Way of the Midlands headquarters, the Clean of Heart laundry business and the University of South Carolina Technology Incubator.

Across Laurel Street, the other portion of the proposed site includes the main bus station for The COMET transit system.

Folks in the Midlands have long discussed the possibility of relocating the Sumter Street bus station – which is “woefully inadequate,” COMET director Bob Schneider has said – and incorporating it into a new regional transit hub, which could connect multiple modes of transportation such as bus, rail, car service, walking and biking. The Central Midlands Council of Governments recently commissioned a study to consider such a hub.

Knowing that study is happening, it makes sense to at least consider transit possibilities with the City Hall project, Gentry said.

Next steps ‘not cheap,’ undefined

The current City Hall, at the corner of Main and Laurel Streets, was designed in 1870, according to the National Register of historic properties. It is the second-oldest government building in Columbia, behind only the S.C. State House. It has housed the court system, the postal service, internal revenue services and, since 1937, city government.

And it’s not going anywhere, Gentry said, even if a new municipal complex is built across the street.

“It’s not for sale,” Gentry said. “We’re proud of the City Hall building, and we don’t intend to abandon it.”

The deadline for “request for qualifications” proposals from interested development partners was Friday. Next, city leaders will narrow the field to a shortlist of qualified candidates, who will then submit more detailed proposals for the development.

Council could approve a development partnership contract as soon as May.

And if the city locks down that contract soon, it’s possible the new City Hall project could become a reality within five years, Gentry said.

If the the city doesn’t find a partnership that meets its needs, it might pursue building the municipal complex on its own, the mayor said.

A true timeline – and budget – are too far away to discuss right now, Gentry said.

“Typically, it’s not cheap, and everyone on council understands that,” Baddourah said. “We need to be cautious.”

Benjamin suggested the city could use the millions of dollars it currently pays to lease downtown office space to pay a mortgage on a new building.

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.