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BULL STREET DEVELOPER Q&A: 25 restaurants, shops not found in SC, maybe a grocery store

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Bull Street Common Rendering 906x583

The 165-acre Bull Street redevelopment project in Columbia is considered to be the largest and most significant land deal in the city’s modern history.

It is expected to add thousands of new homes, stores and offices to the former S.C. State Hospital campus, which is bordered by the Robert Mills District, Cottontown, North Columbia and the medical district anchored by Palmetto Health Richland and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. It is also closely connected to the Waverly neighborhood and the city’s central business district.

Columbia Common, as the new town center-style neighborhood is called, is expected to heavily impact all of those areas.

Upstate developer Bob Hughes, the architect of Greenville’s downtown revival, is acting as master developer. He is parceling out tracts to other developers or his own company, Greenville’s Hughes Development, to build individual segments.

Retail recruiter Hughes Commercial Properties, owned by Hughes’ cousin Jackson Hughes of Greenville, has entered into an agreement with Miami-based retail and residential company Lennar Commercial to find tenants for 400,000 square feet of retail space and 700,000 to 800,000 square feet of residential and office space to be built above it. All of that will take up only about a quarter of the campus.

In November, Jackson Hughes said 41 retailers and restaurants had signed letters of intent, representing about half of the retail space. Earlier this month, Bob Hughes’ son and partner, Robert Hughes, said the number was now approaching 60. The number of leases signed has not been released.

To anchor the project, work began in January on an 8,000-seat, $37 million minor league baseball stadium – $30 million of which is funded by taxpayers. Construction of a 120,000-square-foot office and retail building to be built by Hughes Development along the stadium’s first base line should begin soon, Hughes said.

We interviewed Hughes Feb. 13 on the ninth floor of his new dual-towered One complex in Greenville. The office towers, retail space and plaza is in the heart of Greenville’s thriving, revitalized Main Street. It is home to national retailers Anthropologie and Brooks Brothers, among others, and serves as the headquarters branch for CertusBank.

The State asked Hughes questions gleaned from conversations with Columbia neighborhood leaders and members of the city-appointed Bull Street Commission.

Why did you decide to take on this project?

We’ve been blessed with success and have done some difficult projects. So we decided that we really only want to do projects that matter to the community and that are unlike any being done by someone else. This one is the poster child of that.

I enjoy the challenge. But I enjoy the reward at the end. I like seeing people enjoy something they didn’t have before.

You are required to save five historic buildings – the sprawling Babcock Building, the core of the Williams building, the laundry, the bakery and the Chapel of Hope. And you’ve decided to re-use a sixth, the Ensor Building, the hospital’s former morgue. Can you save more?

We said when we started that the neighborhood needs to be authentic and a have a sense that it has always been there. The best way to do that was to preserve existing character in the form of buildings and trees.

The problem about putting something hard in an agreement about which one to save and how, is you lose all kinds of flexibility. You might get the best thing in the world, but it might mean you have to take down that building.

So we said we’ll commit to saving five and do our best to save the rest of them that can contribute.

What about the Horger Library and the Benet Auditorium?

We have competing requirements. We have to build New Urbanism. In New Urbanism, buildings don’t sit back from the street. They’re not short, single-purpose buildings. That said, because we had this nod to history, we thought, maybe we can save those buildings. Unfortunately, there was a very narrow user who could have used Benet and been in keeping with everything we were doing. To my knowledge there was only one user in the world who could have done that. And about three years into this project, they made a decision to do something else. And we lost them. So it became more important to the development to bring (new) buildings to the street and add some density there.

Is there going to be historic interpretation of the buildings?

We want to put signs on all the buildings with the architect’s name and a little bit about the history, because one might be a good example of 1967 architecture as opposed to 1920 architecture. In addition, we want plaques on all the new buildings, by the architects, telling who did it and what they we trying to accomplish.

Where are you in your plans to restore Smith Branch creek?

We are in active discussions with FEMA and the (Army) Corps of Engineers and have been for six months – there’s a archeological study or something going on – to daylight the stream.

It takes some engineering to take a stream that’s eight feet down in a (culvert) on your property up to the surface and let it run along in a gradual stream bed with wildflowers planted in some areas and other areas where children can go play in the stream and rocks in the stream as it meanders and it riffles – which is a word I had not heard before. But all that is in the design now.

And if we can get it permitted, in the event of a flood, we will leave the pipe in the ground and instead of the water flooding the campus, it will go back into those pipes.

Do you have a plan for cleaning it up?

Exposing it to sunlight. The riffles. Spreading it out. All those things are what you do to clean it up. Anything else is artificial and you’re not supposed to do that.

What opportunities are there for minority hiring?

There will be lots and lots and lots of jobs there when we’re finished. That’s not necessarily for firms, but there will be places for local firms to open.

What about construction projects, engaging small, minority and female-owned firms?

All of our developers are being asked to participate in spreading the jobs around. There is not a mandate.

In the development agreement, all of the public funds, whatever that number is, all those have to go through the city procurement process with local, small and minority (businesses). We’ll use the city’s list. We’ll circulate to them. We’ll talk to them. And we hope the first hire we have is somebody who is either a minority firm or is in the mentor-protege program that the city runs.

We’ve never had to do that. But we’ve had a successful track record (with previous projects) …

You border one of the poorest neighborhoods in Columbia: North Columbia. Will there be opportunities for jobs for minority and underprivileged youth?

That will be up to the guys who operate things. But baseball parks traditionally hire youth. There are a lot of summer jobs exactly when youths want jobs: after school hours and in the summer. That’s when baseball ramps up, and they have lots of part time employees for that. Baseball is a great example of where that could occur.

We’ll have lots of other jobs that ramp up in the summer. Retail will do retail. Office will do office.

How will this project connect, interact and impact the neighborhoods around it?

We touch four very unique neighborhoods. On one side is just giant government buildings. On the other side is a whole bunch of houses that have turned into lawyers’ offices and doctors’ offices.

A simple example is what we call the Calhoun overlay. Calhoun Street has shorter buildings to kind of speak back to that neighborhood. Harden Street is five lanes, so it will be more highway-looking. Bull Street is five lanes, but it’s got a big (historic asylum) wall there. So (the project) will turn from Bull Street.

(Also), it is in the development agreement that we have trail connections. But there aren’t any trails to connect to (right now). So we have trail connections going in every direction.

We want to be the great room for a very large community.

Some of those impacts are going to be light, noise and more traffic.

It is less likely to be light and noise than people say. Everybody said baseball was a problem, move it. So we moved it to the center. It’s a half a mile across the site. You’ll be able to see the lights, but you’re not going to be able to read a book in your yard or anything.

Traffic? I wish we had more entrances to the project, because the more entrances you’ve got, the less traffic impact you’ve got, because you can spread it out to more places. But we’ve got the entrances that we’ve got. …

(Columbia Common) is not a 7-11 that needs five or 10 thousand cars a day in and out. You come and you stay. You eat. You shop. You work out. You go get entertained. You go see your doctor. You can make a day trip to this place. And I hope a lot of people think the day trips are so great they think, ‘I’ll just live here.’

Are we going to see retail that we don’t have in other parts of the city?

The retail developer looks like he will have 25 restaurants when he starts. Many of the retailers who are well on their way to being here are first in the state, certainly first in Columbia or second or third in the state. These are unique retailers to this market. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen any of the retailers on the site plan that are in Columbia.

If you want retailers so you don’t have to go to Greenville or Charleston or Charlotte, that’s what we are trying to bring.

How much of your business do you think will come from the neighborhoods around you?

Our market is everywhere. …

The project is too big just to be for the neighborhoods around it. … It’s mostly a regional draw. But it will serve everyone who is close very well. We really hope to have a grocery store.

The four neighborhoods we touch pretty much represent all of Columbia. And we want to serve all of Columbia.

The stadium is going up. What is the timetable now for the retail? Folks want to know when something is going to come out of the ground.

So do I. It’s an interesting dynamic. The more successful it becomes, the slower it has to go, because (retailer) A wants B, and B wants C (to locate there as well, creating a destination). Well, suddenly D shows up so you have to change the documents. But D is worth changing the documents for (so you redesign the project).

People are starting to show up who said ‘no’ before, because other people are already there. Friends are calling their friends saying, ‘Why don’t you come with me.’ And the lenders want to be sure that D will actually be there (before working out the financing).

I had hoped it would be this summer. It might be later than this summer. I would hope announcements would be coming out before then. But we don’t want speed to be the enemy of quality. And quality is growing very rapidly at this point.