Another large student housing project headed for downtown Columbia?

A Florida-based student housing developer has purchased the old Richland County jail and traffic court in columbia
A Florida-based student housing developer has purchased the old Richland County jail and traffic court in columbia jwilkinson@thestate.com

A Florida developer specializing in student housing has purchased the high-profile lot at 1400 Huger St. that once housed Richland County’s traffic court and the Columbia magistrate.

The 5-acre lot was purchased by 908 Group Holdings of Tampa for $4 million, authorities said. The Richland County Assessor’s Office lists the market value of the property at $2.53 million.

A 908 Group Holdings employee, development associate Eric Duda, confirmed the sale but directed questions to managing director Alex English. Efforts to reach English were unsuccessful.

Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corp., said student housing, which rents by the bed and not the unit and sits unoccupied during the summer months, would not be his first choice for the property. The corporation encourages and guides development in the Vista.

The land is located at Huger’s intersection with Hampton Street, a block from the S.C. State Museum, EdVenture Children’s Museum and the Congaree riverfront near the heart of Columbia’s bustling Vista entertainment and arts district.

“That’s a fabulous, fabulous location because of the river and the museums,” Delk said. “We would prefer market rate. But people are people, and we are glad to have lots of people living downtown.”

908 Group Holdings, a Tampa company, has eight student-housing developments in Knoxville and Memphis, Tenn., Louisville, Ky., Tuscaloosa, Ala., Gainesville, Fla., Tallahassee, Fla., and two in Austin, Texas. A ninth project – a 68-unit St. Petersburg, Fla., mid-rise – is billed as “workforce housing.”

The lot is located across Huger Street from the Kline Center property, which is slated for market-rate apartments after a more ambitious mixed-use development was scrapped because the city would not pay for a parking garage. It also is across the street from a highly developable tract owned by SCANA.

The former traffic court, built in 1965, was once the Richland County sheriff’s office. The site also once housed the county jail, but that building was torn down years ago for parking.

Sheriff Leon Lott began his career at the building, which he called “a neat, cozy building to work in.”

“That’s a prime location with the Vista and the riverfront right there,” he said.

Columbia has seen a boom in student housing since the county and city of Columbia passed a property tax break for the units in 2014. The measure was adopted to help boost residential development in the city core and downtown foot traffic.

The city has seen 10 of the mega complexes developed as the University of South Carolina continues to steadily increase its enrollment.

Another large complex, The Empire, a 684-bed mid-rise being built on Assembly Street near the State House, is set to open next year.

The influx of students, particularly those in the 26-story The Hub student-housing project on Main Street, is seen as instrumental in downtown Columbia’s renaissance.

But there have been hiccups:

▪  Student housing at the proposed Kline Center on Huger Street and at the BullStreet development at the former S.C. State Hospital campus never materialized.

▪  A 15-story project called The Edge on Assembly Street adjacent to Richland Libary has been delayed, perhaps until 2019.

▪  Construction has yet to start on a 507-bed project announced for the old Colonial Warehouse site on Shop Road.

The gorilla in the room is USC’s planned $460 million “campus village” with 3,750 beds, which might be giving some student-housing developers pause.

Delk said he hopes the developments move forward in some capacity.

“We are seeing some developers putting property under contract and then making a decision not to build,” he said.

He said the worst-case scenario is developers will convert to other uses.