Press and Media

Developers Hope for Tax Breaks on Bull Street’s Babcock Building

Originally published Wednesday, August 31, 2016 at: http://www.free-times.com/news/developers-hope-for-tax-breaks-on-bull-streets-babcock-building-083116

By Chris Trainor

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Developers in the Commons at BullStreet project are taking steps to get tax breaks for the rehabilitation of the old Babcock Building on the grounds of the former state mental hospital.

Virginia’s Clachan Properties is looking to convert the Babcock Building into a facility that would house more than 170 market-rate apartments. Bull Street master developer Bob Hughes has estimated it could cost $60 million to renovate the historic building, but Clachan president Hugh Shytle says he is hoping to get it done for less than that price.

On Sept. 8, the City of Columbia’s Design/Development Review Commission is scheduled to consider recommending landmark status for the north and south wings of the Babcock Building. The center part of the facility — with its instantly recognizable dome off Bull Street and Elmwood Avenue — already has a landmark designation.

According to city planner Amy Moore, landmark designation is a critical step in getting the Bailey Bill, a tax abatement measure, for the property.

“It is in place to help uphold and restore our historic resources in the city,” Moore said of the Bailey Bill. “So, if someone has a run-down building that is historic and significant and they invest 20 percent of the value of the building back into it and maintain the architectural integrity of the building, then the [tax] value of the building can stay at the pre-renovation rate for 20 years.”

Shytle says the renovation of the Babcock Building will be a tall task.

The building was built in 12 phases over the course of a number of years, from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Being built piece-by-piece makes rehabilitation difficult.

“Being able to renovate it in a financially viable way, while still maintaining the historic fabric is just very, very tricky,” Shytle told Free Times. “Perhaps smarter people wouldn’t have gotten involved in the project, but we wanted to do it.”

Shytle also says that Babcock is simply in poor physical condition.

“It was abandoned a long time ago,” the developer says. “There are many openings in the building that are letting weather in. It’s in rough shape.”

Shytle says, with the financial and practical challenges of renovating the more than 200,000-square-foot building, getting a tax break via the Bailey Bill will be critical. He says, if it weren’t for such tax abatements on old, historic properties, “nothing would get renovated.”

Shytle told Free Times the apartments at Babcock would not be targeted at college students.

“We would expect, given its location, that it would attract young professionals,” Shytle says. “But it will also attract empty nesters. It’s right adjacent to the new ballpark and it [will be] adjacent to 400,000 square feet of retail.

“We think it will be a pretty attractive place to live.”

Clachan does not have a timetable on rehabilitating the building.

The move to secure the Bailey Bill for the entire Babcock Building is the latest step in the slow-but-gaining momentum of the Bull Street property.

The mostly publicly funded $37 million Spirit Communications Park opened its doors this year and quickly won rave reviews, being named Ballpark Digest’s Ballpark of the Year. The Columbia Fireflies have drawn 238,000 fans to the park, through Aug. 30, which is good for sixth in the 14-team South Atlantic League.

Meanwhile, Cobb Theatres announced plans to build a 10-screen luxury theater on the site by summer 2018. The theater will have reserved, electric reclining seats, a restaurant and bar and a self-serve concession area.

City and Fireflies officials have said they expect some retail construction will begin on the Bull Street site before the end of the year.