Exclusive: Bull Street State Hospital sale close

A Greenville developer could agree to buy the former State Hospital campus on Bull Street in about two weeks, according to the broker for the property and an attorney for the state Mental Health Department.

The sale is one of the most anticipated and significant land deals in Columbia history.

The 178-acre Bull Street campus - used to treat the mentally ill since the 1700s - is the largest in-town tract open for development in Columbia.

The sale has been planned since 2004 but was embroiled in a S.C. Supreme Court case to determine who controlled the land - the state Budget and Control Board or a trust represented by the S.C. Mental Health Commission.

Greenville developer Bob Hughes - most recently the manager for the defunct Green Diamond development, south of the city - has not released his plans for the site.

But a 2005 plan developed by a renowned architect called for more than 1,200 houses, apartments and condos, and hundreds of thousands of square feet of offices and retail.

NAI Avant broker Gene Green said the deal with Hughes Development could be done by Jan. 15.

"We are very close," said Mental Health Department attorney Mark Binkley.

Binkley noted any sale would have to be approved by the courts that ruled the property is owned by a trust dedicated to care of the mentally ill. "I hope it will be relatively speedy," he said.

The redevelopment of the sprawling campus and its historic buildings is considered a major engine for downtown's continued growth.

Mayor Bob Coble has called the redevelopment's potential "Columbia's BMW."

The sale "is a seminal event for the city," Coble said. "Combined with Innovista (USC's research campus), it's the greatest economic opportunity for redevelopment and job creation that we will have."

Neither Green nor Mental Health's Binkley would discuss the price.

Efforts to reach Hughes were unsuccessful.

Estimates of the cost of the 178-acre campus have varied widely through the years - from $15 million to $32 million. Insiders estimate the land will sell at the lower end of that range - for $15 million to $20 million - due, in part, to the recession.

When pressed, Binkley would say only the price was below the $32 million assessment made about a decade ago.

The sale has been trimmed to about 165 acres, Binkley said, with the Mental Health Department retaining the Hull Institute and about 20 acres surrounding it. The Hull Institute treats children with mental illnesses.

In addition to state court approval, the sale would be contingent on the city and Hughes agreeing on zoning. A key will be the preservation of historic buildings, such as the landmark Babcock Building with its distinctive red cupola, Binkley said.

The Mills Building - constructed between 1822 and 1827, and the most historic structure on the property - is not included in the sale.

"We will make a decision on what buildings will be preserved during that process," said Mayor Coble, who is not seeking re-election and leaves office at mid-year. "We can protect the buildings."


Less likely to be preserved is a 2005 master plan for the property developed by the firm of New Urbanism guru Andres Duany.

Developed after a series of highly publicized public meetings and brainstorming sessions, the "Duany plan" calls for a dense mix of residential, office and retail.

It called for 1,257 residential units - from single-family homes to condos and apartments - as well as 179,000 square feet of retail space and 638,000 square feet of office space.

The plan cost $390,000. The city of Columbia paid half. The state paid the other half.

Mental Health Department officials have indicated they would sell the property without regard to the Duany plan. Their priority is getting the most money from a sale for mental health patients.

Coble said the plan likely be will altered, given the collapse of the real estate market.

"In light of the current economic conditions, the density levels of the residential and the mix would have to be looked at again," he said. "But the basic tenets of the Duany plan - mixed use and high density - should be the guiding principles."

Selling the Bull Street property has been proposed - on-again, off-again - for years.

Gov. Mark Sanford revived the idea in late 2003. But the process was bogged down for months as the state Supreme Court decided who would get the money from the property's sale - Mental Health or the state budget board.

In 2007, the court ruled the land is owned by a public trust, controlled by the Mental Health Commission, and the money from its sale should be used to treat patients.