Is Richland County botching a big downtown land sale?

Richland County plans to sell its former Sheriff’s Department Headquarters on Huger Street to a Flordia developer that specializes in student housing.
Richland County plans to sell its former Sheriff’s Department Headquarters on Huger Street to a Flordia developer that specializes in student housing. jwilkinson@thestate.com

Is Richland County botching the sale of an important piece of property on Columbia’s Huger Street?

Some City Council members, downtown boosters, and others aren’t happy that the land may be sold to a company that specializes in student housing. Also, questions have been raised about how aggressive the county marketed the property and whether the land could have been sold for more money.

The former Richland County Sheriff’s Department headquarters on Huger Street is deemed by planners as key to the next wave of downtown development. County officials confirmed in October that they had signed a contract to sell the 4.4-acre tract for $4 million, or about $120,000 more than its appraised value.

The land is strategically located in the Vista on Huger Street just two blocks from the Congaree River. When combined with two other large, adjacent properties, the tract could set the stage for development on the riverfront.

The final sale to a Tampa, Fla.-based company specializing in student housing could be approved no later than mid-January. But critics include Columbia’s two at-large City Council members, Howard Duvall and Tameika Isaac Devine.

Their opinion is crucial because the property is in the city, and City Council must ultimately approve plans for its development.

“I will not support another student housing development in the city, especially in that corridor,” said Duvall, a former executive director of the S.C. Municipal Association. “We need mixed use. We need workforce housing. And we need a project that will complement future development on the river.”

Devine agreed.

“When you think about the highest and best use of that property, I’m not sure student housing would be the best option,” she said.

Great Strides

The city has made great strides in the past decade in growing first the Vista and now Main Street. The next step, city planners say, is to attract residential and mixed use development to the Huger Street corridor and eventually the Congaree riverfront.

The company that wants to buy the property — the 908 Group — did not respond to multiple inquiries from The State. But Duvall and Devine said they were told by city staff members that a student housing complex is planned for the property.

The former sheriff’s department property is adjacent to the former Kline Steel property and the former SCE&G bus barn property. They, in turn, are adjacent to the S.C. State Museum and city-owned property along the Columbia Canal. Together, the three tracts are considered keystones to downtown’s continued growth to the river.

Student housing has fueled much of downtown’s growth, funneling thousands of University of South Carolina students into the city center. But planners say downtown may be over-saturated with it.

Those students are part-time residents and transient. City planners say the next step for downtown, particularly in the vital riverfront corridor, is “market rate” apartments and retail. Student housing is leased by the bed. Market rate apartments are leased by the unit.

Another student housing development “would be disappointing because it’s such a great market rate location,” said Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corp., which encourages and guides development in the Vista and other areas of downtown.

Multiple concerns

That is just one of several concerns expressed by city officials, real estate professionals and others about the sale.

When Richland County confirmed the contract to sell last month, many local investors, developers and brokers said they didn’t even know the property was being actively marketed.

“It seems a lot of people would be interested in this,” said Frank Cason of Cason Development Group, which was one of several developers and real estate agents who told The State they were taken aback by the announcement.

“I think you would want to blow it out to get more value,” he said. “But not many, if any, people heard about it.”

Delk, whose office is six blocks from the Huger Street tract, said he was unaware the land was actively on the market until he read news reports.

“It’s right in the Vista,” he said. “It’s close to the river. Why wouldn’t they offer it to the world?”

The County Council voted in February 2014 to seek an appraisal of the property because of inquiries the county received about the land, according to a Nov. 3 newsletter from the county. A second appraisal, completed in September 2016, valued the property at $3.88 million.

When asked what steps the county took to advertise the property’s sale, county spokeswoman Beverly Harris would only say that the county followed its ordinances and referred The State to the ordinances. They apparently only require the county to hold a public hearing before the land is sold or before a contract to sell the land is signed.

The County Council has given preliminary approval to sell the land, according to deputy clerk of council Michelle Onley. The second of three required approvals is scheduled for Tuesday. A public hearing will be held before final approval is considered on Feb. 6.

Real estate comparisons

Some real estate professionals expressed surprise that the tract was being sold for $4 million, or $909,000 an acre. Recent sales in the area show that tracts in the Vista have been routinely selling for more than $1 million per acre, according to county records.

▪ The 1.73-acre Berstein property on Assembly Street at Pendleton Street sold for $3.8 million or $2.2 million an acre, county records show. The Empire student housing tower is being built on the site.

But the property’s seller, state Rep. Beth Bernstein, said the price was driven by the site’s location across the street from the State House and two blocks from the University of South Carolina’s Horseshoe.

▪ The 1.7-acre parcel around the McDonald’s restaurant at the intersection of Gervais and Huger streets – just three blocks from the former sheriff’s department headquarters – went for $2 million, or about $1.2 million an acre.

▪  A 1.33-acre site at 401 Hampton St., across from the CanalSide development between Hampton and Taylor streets, sold for more than $1.2 million, or about $902,000 an acre. A home storage unit was built on the site, which has limited access.

The county property has access on three sides, level land and requires minimum demolition.

“It’s a very large, very valuable site,” Delk said. “It’s next to the core of the Vista. Next to a major street that connects to I-126. And from a traffic perspective, it’s a right turn in, right turn out. And it’s a block from a grocery store.”

‘We were told ... it was a good deal’

Harris, the county spokeswoman, emphasized that the property was sold for more than its appraised value.

But county leaders told The State that if the sale wasn’t maximized by an aggressive marketing effort, it isn’t that big a deal. The county often sells surplus property for the appraised rate.

County Council members Greg Pearce, who made the motion to sell the property in 2013, and Jim Manning both said the appraisal swayed County Council to vote unanimously for the sale in September.

The price “was more than the appraisal, so we thought we were getting a good deal,” Pearce said. “But we’re not real estate brokers.”

Added Manning: “We were told by the county administrator (Seals) it was a good deal.” Manning is a frequent critic of county administrator Gerald Seals, who oversaw the proposed sale.