Bull Street property deal breaker targeted

The Columbia City Council on Wednesday is expected to abandon a plan for a historic overlay on the central campus of the State Hospital - a move that could clear the way for a sale of the sprawling property on Bull Street.

Meanwhile, the S.C. Department of Mental Health has taken about 18 acres out of the 181 acres up for sale. The agency will continue to house about 60 mentally ill children there at the William S. Hall Psychiatric Institute.

The sale of the campus - the largest in-town tract open for development in Columbia - would pave the way for hundreds of homes, offices and stores, under a plan developed in 2005. City officials have called the property's development "Columbia BMW" - referring to the jobs- and income-generating auto plant in Greer.

However, preservationists are concerned that the sale could lead to the demolition of up to 14 buildings they deem historic or architecturally significant.

In exchange for dropping the historic overlay, City Council has accepted written assurances from the Department of Mental Health that it wouldn't sell the property to Hughes Development of Greenville unless the city and the developer agree on the preservation of the buildings, some more than a century old.

"This is a compromise that preserves the buildings and puts the Department of Mental Health and the city on the same page," Mayor Bob Coble said Monday. "It's not perfect, but it's a good compromise."

Councilwoman Belinda Gergel, who sponsored the overlay along with Councilman E.W. Cromartie, said the letter from Mental Health should be sufficient protection for the buildings.

"It's precedent-setting," she said. "In all of the preservation battles we've had, we've never had this" kind of commitment from an owner. "It's a win-win situation."

The 45-acre overlay would have protected all 14 buildings as well as some of the landscape and the largest and oldest trees.

Gergel said she was meeting with preservationists Monday evening to discuss the issues. She would still like to see demolition permits and architectural designs in the core campus go before a review board.

"I'm committed to the DDRC process," she said, referring to the Design Development Review Board, which oversees demolition, renovation and new construction in historic districts.

Developers generally like to avoid the DDRC because it adds another layer of bureaucratic approval.

The sales agent for the property said the retention of patients at the Hall Institute would not be a barrier to the pending sale.

"We had an informal discussion with a lot of (potential buyers)," said Gene Green of NAI Avant. "It was unanimous that (retaining patients) wouldn't have a negative impact on the property. (The institute) has been there for years, and it hasn't been an issue with the neighbors."

Although a plan for the property was conceived in 2005, the property was not formally placed on the market until this summer because of a lengthy S.C. Supreme Court battle over which state entity should control it. The high court sided with the Mental Health Department over the S.C. State Budget and Control Board.

The delay caused funding challenges for a new Hall Institute on Farrow Road because the sale of the Bull Street property was intended to pay for it, mental health attorney Mark Binkley said.

"It was kind of a chicken or the egg thing," he said.

But estimates for the new hospital came in at about $50 million, double what the department expected, Binkley said.

So the department decided to renovate the 40-year-old Hall Institute instead.

The proceeds from the sale were expected to pay for things like a sprinkler system, a new heating and air-conditioning system and other improvements.

Binkley noted that the 121,200-square-foot Hall building is oriented toward Colonial Drive at the back of the Bull Street property. It is also across the street from the new Lexington-Richland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission.

"Over time, it became more and more clear that it made less sense to sell Hall Institute than to renovate it," Binkley said.