Columbia wants to stop you from tearing down historic buildings

Women’s Club of Columbia to be demolished

The Catholic Diocese of South Carolina has purchased the Women's Club of Columbia building on Blossom Street. The Diocese has obtained a permit to demolish the building. Historic Columbia says the diocese plans to build a Catholic student center.
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The Catholic Diocese of South Carolina has purchased the Women's Club of Columbia building on Blossom Street. The Diocese has obtained a permit to demolish the building. Historic Columbia says the diocese plans to build a Catholic student center.

On July 21, 2012, an historic marker was placed at the Waverly Five and Dime store located at 2313 Gervais St., near Millwood Avenue..

The marker noted that civil rights pioneer George Elmore lost the store in the late 1940s when he sued to end South Carolina’s all-white primaries, a stand that ultimately led to his financial ruin.

Less than a week after the marker was placed, the store was in rubble, razed by the neighboring First Nazareth Baptist Church, which had purchased it two years earlier. The church said it wanted to build a community center and parking lot.

The lot is still vacant.

This past May, the Catholic Diocese of Charleston razed the historic Women’s Club of Columbia building on Blossom Street shortly after purchasing it from the University of South Carolina Development Foundation. The foundation was accused of breaking a signed promise to neighbors to consult with them before selling or demolishing the building.

Both of the buildings qualified for city landmark status, and in the case of the Women’s Club, the National Register of Historic Places. Neither of the buildings, however, were in one of the city’s many historic districts, community character districts or urban design areas, which carry varying layers of protections for such structures.

Now, the Columbia Planning Department and City Council’s economic development subcommittee are considering a “demolition delay” ordinance, which would prevent rapid tear downs of historic or architectural or culturally significant buildings outside of protected districts.

“We looked at this several years ago,” but the ordinance was never completed, said Amy Moore, the city’s chief preservation planner. “Then we lose something again and it comes back.”

The ordinance is polarizing, pitting preservationists, history buffs and city planners against property rights advocates, home builders, Realtors and the USC Foundations.

The present draft of the ordinance — to be discussed again by the subcommittee Nov. 6 — would delay demolition for at least 180 days while city staff works with the owners to find secondary uses, buyers or financial incentives for reusing it.

However, the ordinance would require that the building be eligible for city landmark status before the delay would kick in.

“It’s not just that a building is 50 years old,” Moore said.

The criteria are:

Is the structure listed in or has been determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

Does it contribute to a Historic District listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Does it have distinctive architectural characteristics.

Is it a somewhat rare architectural type within Columbia.

Is it a good example of a group or style of building.

Is it the work of an architect of national or local importance.

Is it an example of a rare or endangered style of architecture in Columbia.

Is it the site of events or the home of people that had significantly contributed to local or national history.

But the ordinance has heavy weight opponents.

“This could be an infringement of private property rights,” said Earl McLeod, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Central South Carolina, formerly the Home Builders Association of SC. “We think it definitely is and that should be the overriding consideration. Property owners have rights and those rights should be protected.”

McLeod’s comments came at a recent subcommittee meeting.

In a written statement, Taylor Oxendine, CEO of the Central Carolina Realtors Association, noted six objections to the proposed ordinance. He claims the ordinance:

Would infringe upon private property rights.

Could impose a potentially expensive and protracted process on properties simply because they are old.

Would effectively impose a permanent preservation restriction on a structure without its owner’s consent if a permit is denied by the city Design Development Review Commission.

Requires that a property owner give city staff and the public access to the structure proposed for demolition.

Is “unclear, poorly drafted, and potentially vulnerable to challenge under the ‘void for vagueness’ doctrine.”

May result in a “temporary taking” that entitles the owner to compensation from the city.

And Jason Caskey, CEO of USC Foundations, which sold the Women’s Club, told the subcommittee that the ordinance could hinder the growth of the university.

“We’re landlocked,” he said. “We look for opportunities to expand. We think this could hamper those opportunities.”

Moore said the ordinance would apply to just a few downtown corridors: parts of the city center, Devine Street, parts of Gervais Street not now in a protected district and parts of North Main.

City Council member Daniel Rickenmann, who has advocated eliminating the DDRC altogether, is not an advocate.

“We have to be very careful not to have blanket (overlay),” he said. “And that’s what we are doing here, a blanket.”

Subcommittee member Howard Duvall said the ordinance must weigh both arguments.

“There needs to be a balance between the rights of the developer and private landowner and the rights of the citizens of the city to maintain our historic structures,” he said..