City delays decision on Bull Street

Columbia City Council members have delayed for 45 days a decision on whether to make a portion of 181 acres on Bull Street a historic preservation district.

The state Department of Mental Health is trying to sell the property to make up some of its $40 million in budget cuts.

The agency is close to a deal with Greenville developer Bob Hughes, but Hughes has said he won't buy the property if City Council members extend a historical preservation overlay over a portion of the property.

Supporters of the overlay are concerned that a buyer could demolish the 100-year-old buildings on the property, including the storied Babcock building, which was built in 1857 and is one of the nation's oldest mental health buildings.

While all council members agreed they wanted to preserve the buildings, a majority of council members opposed the overlay for several reasons, including:

- They did not want to be the reason Hughes walked away from the deal.

- They would lose all authority over what happens at the property, which is the largest downtown tract available for sale. An overlay would mean all decisions would go through the city's Design/Development Review Commission. All appeals would go to circuit court.

- They could lose millions of dollars in property taxes from the property. An overlay would make the property eligible for the Bailey Bill, which caps property taxes at preconstruction rates on the condition that historic buildings are preserved. Once the property is developed, it will be among the most valuable in the city and be a big source of revenue for Columbia.

Mayor Bob Coble said he was confident no developer would tear down the buildings for risk of angering council members, who, in turn, would not pay for water and sewer hookups for the new development.

The council's decision came after a four-hour public hearing.

Councilwoman Belinda Gergel, the former head of the Historic Columbia Foundation, sponsored the historic overlay proposal, along with Councilman E.W. Cromartie. Gergel made the motion to delay the vote for 45 days, which council members approved unanimously.

"This overlay was designed to make sure the buildings stay up," Gergel said. "What I clearly saw was that my council colleagues appreciated the historical significance of this property."

The overlay, while not approved, has been in place since March when it was first proposed. Because of the pending ordinance doctrine, it will be in place until council votes on it.

Because of that, some preservationists - such as Mike Bedenbaugh with the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation - view the delay as a victory.

"We look forward to the opportunity to show the facts of what this overlay will really do," he said.

But the Department of Mental Health is concerned the delay will jeopardize its negotiations with Hughes because of the uncertainty.

"We would have preferred them to vote down the overlay today," said Mark Binkley, an attorney for the department. "I don't know how our prospective buyer will react."

Attempts to reach Hughes were unsuccessful.

Most of the 18 people who spoke during the public hearing were against the overlay, including the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

But the preservationists, led by Bedenbaugh, were adamant that the overlay would attract developers, not drive them away.

As proof, Bedenbaugh yielded his time to speak before council to Brad Elmer, development project manager for The Alexander company, based in Madison, Wis.

Elmer said he met with the broker in charge of the property Tuesday and is interested in developing the property, but only if it has an historic preservation overlay.

"I believe this (preservation) district will add value to this property," Elmer said. "But you have to find the right developer to seek out that value."

Gene Green, business manager for NAI Avant, which is handling the property's sale for the Department of Mental Health, said he has shown the property to about 15 people. But, he added, Hughes is the only serious candidate thus far.

Opponents of the overlay point to the fact that Hughes was one of the developers who revitalized Greenville's downtown and restored two historic buildings - the Westin Poinsett Hotel and the Liberty Life Building, according to Ted Sperth, a friend of Hughes' who spoke during Wednesday's meeting.

Binkely said he plans to send a letter to city officials today, promising not to tear down any buildings on the property.

"We don't have the money to rent the bulldozers to knock down the buildings," Binkley said.