Taking the Bull by the Horns
Changing the face of Columbia
The term “BullStreet” today has a very different connotation for Midlands residents than the old “Bull Street,” the location of the state mental asylum, often referred to in hushed tones. The new BullStreet District redevelopment project entails renovation and construction on 181 acres of property, approximately the same size as Greenville’s downtown business district. Virtually abandoned for more than 20 years, with the exception of some state offices and lacking critical infrastructure, the historic property is providing the City of Columbia with unique opportunities and challenges.
The redevelopment project has formally become the BullStreet District, or simply BullStreet, by Hughes Development Corporation, a Greenville-based firm. In 2014, the company began purchasing the property, which is bounded by Bull Street on the west, Calhoun Street on the south, Harden Street on the east, and Colonial Drive on the north. The BullStreet development, a 20-year project, includes preservation and renovation of a number of the historic buildings plus new construction. When completed, the development will have a projected 3.3 million square feet of commercial space and up to 3,500 residential units, according to Robert Hughes, the lead project manager and president of Hughes Development Corp. For example, five 80,000-square-foot projects could ultimately mean 400,000 square feet of retail in one area.
“We are not going to sacrifice quality and the right vision for time,” Robert says. “Our vision is to get this right … to create a dense urban city within a city that integrates within the fabric of Columbia and can withstand the test of time.”
The city and the developer both assess that the project is ahead of schedule, despite some initial disappointments. The 400,000-square-foot retail development along Bull Street that would have included a multi-screen luxury movie theater failed to materialize when market conditions changed. A movie theater is still part of the vision, however.
Hughes Development has an eight-year schedule to buy all of the property from the state. Currently the firm has purchased a little more than 100 acres. “But because the site is so vast and so large, it is hard to see it all from one angle. From no single vantage point can you see everything.” That, Robert says, has created a misperception that progress is moving slowly. “You can’t see a lot when you drive by, so unless people come to a ballgame and actually drive in, they can’t see all the wonderful things that are happening.”
In March, the city of Columbia extended its agreement with Hughes Development for another five years. The agreement, which specifies commitments made by both entities, must be renewed every five years.
Columbia City Council member Howard Duvall, who ran against the Bull Street development as a candidate in 2015, says he has very much become an advocate for the potential of that site. He chairs the Bull Street Commission, a seven-member advisory board appointed by City Council.
He was opposed to using $30 million in city money to develop Spirit Communications Park, the baseball stadium that has become the centerpiece of BullStreet. The city is putting $100 million into BullStreet, including the money for the baseball stadium and money for infrastructure and two parking garages. But Howard’s view now is that, as a council member, he is responsible for making the BullStreet project a success. Howard says the only aspect with which he is not satisfied is the ability to attract retail. “But that is not a BullStreet problem, that is a universal problem all over,” he shares, adding that it is because of the changing nature of retail. “The kind of retail that we will get in BullStreet will not be the type of retail that we were thinking about getting five years ago because those people are not building bricks and mortar. We are going for boutique. We will be looking for local, neighborhood retail to service the people who are going to be living over there.”
Once people start living in BullStreet, Howard expects the retail to follow.
Spirit Communications Park, until recently, has been the only real draw for the public. The city-owned, multi-purpose stadium and park is leased and managed by Hardball Capital and is home to the Columbia Fireflies minor league baseball team. Hughes Development donated the land for the stadium and the entrance plaza to the city of Columbia. Nearly 800,000 people have attended Fireflies games or special events at the park since it opened in 2016.
What some people do not realize is they do not have to wait for a baseball game or other event to visit the stadium. Spirit Communications Park is a city park that is open every day. About 200 people on average use the park’s walking track daily; it also serves as a great spot for picnics.
Robert and others hope that BullStreet’s first restaurant, Bone-In Barbeque, which opened in late April in the historic Ensor building next to the stadium, will generate more traffic. In addition to the ballpark and Ensor Building, other completed projects at BullStreet include the First Base Building adjacent to Spirit Communications Park, the Parker Annex, as well as the historic bakery. Built around 1900, the functional bakery, where some of the residents of the State Hospital worked, was part of the infrastructure that supported the city-within-a-city.
The First Base building, the largest private office building built in Columbia since 2009, is occupied by tech firm Capgemini, Founders Federal Credit Union, and law firm Ogletree Deakins. Another tenant is expected soon.
Ogletree Deakins was the first business to move into the First Base Building, opening its office just as the Fireflies’ first season was getting underway. The firm was excited to make the move, says Kathy Dudley Helms, managing shareholder for the Columbia office. “Our office gets really excited about the Midlands and about Columbia,” she says, “and we felt like we could become a part of something going forward. That really weighed heavily on this. We think it is a wonderful concept. To finish out is going to take 20 years, but a lot of stuff is already going on.”
To make up for the lack of amenities, especially restaurants, employees took the initiative to bring food trucks to BullStreet. “They rotate ... We have a list, and every week we have a different food truck,” Kathy says. “Sometimes a blank slate makes you be a little creative.”
Developing BullStreet is about blending new construction, like the baseball stadium and the First Base Building, with historic preservation and renovation. The original development agreement called for Hughes to save at least five structures. Hughes is now at nine and plans include a least one more, thus doubling the original number. “We wanted maximum flexibility for development, but we are very preservation conscious,” Robert says.
The Parker Annex, built in 1910 on Barnwell Street, was one of nine historic buildings saved. Purchased and restored by Diversified Development, Inc., it is leased to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Heritage Trust program. Now called the Parker Annex Archaeology Center, the new facility is the only one of its kind in South Carolina and will give the public an opportunity to learn about the state’s rich cultural heritage. As field excavations are conducted, volunteers will be invited to not only work in the field, but also in the laboratory cleaning, analyzing and cataloging artifacts. The facility will also be a center for educational outreach.
The renovated bakery is now home to the second location of SOCO, a platform and community for creators, entrepreneurs, and independent workers. Currently, 130-plus members and 75 member companies call SOCO home. SOCO was at the point of needing to add a second location to its original Vista space, says Greg Hilton, a co-founder and managing partner, when it learned about and subsequently fell in love with Hughes Development’s vision for BullStreet. “It was the potential to not only walk into a pretty space, but also to actually help them write the narrative for BullStreet. That is kind of a unique thing,” says Greg.
The building won the Adaptive Use Preservation Award from Historic Columbia and is the hub of the BullStreet Technology Village. Parker Annex also won an Adaptive Use Preservation award this year. Thanks to a partnership with Spirit Communications, BullStreet is the state’s first urban gigabit community, offering lightning fast hard-wired internet service of one gigabit per second, or about 100 times faster than the average fixed high-speed internet connection. Greg explains that Hughes is providing the infrastructure that organizations like SOCO and CapGemini can use to grow. One of the aspects that attracted SOCO was the partnership that Hughes created with Spirit to invest in infrastructure.
“This is the new infrastructure; it is not roads. Yes, we need roads. It is not bridges; yes, we need bridges. It is internet connectivity. It is wireless. It is all of those things that are the next generation of infrastructure that we need, that this place is going to need,” he says. “It would have been a shame if anyone had bulldozed this and started over. It was not an easy building to redo, but it is totally worth it. Our members love it. It has got that edge and that grit. It is a nod to the past and a clear look to the future.”
Hughes Development’s vision very much aligns with the city’s vision of growing the tax base, bringing more jobs to Columbia, and recruiting and retaining the young talent in Columbia. “Keeping the college graduates in Columbia is one of our key focuses,” Robert says.
To make BullStreet work, Hughes Development — serving as the project’s master developer — has worked with 10 different development partners, including the city. Other development projects underway at BullStreet include the 28-townhome community TownPark at BullStreet, the Merrill Gardens senior living community, and Downtown Church’s renovation of the Central Energy Facility.
TownPark at BullStreet, which sits near Parker Annex off Barnwell Street, is new construction by the Terranova Group with sales by The Moore Company. The first five townhomes are under construction as of early spring 2018. The two- and three-bedroom residences have roof decks, garages, and a private courtyard.
Site preparation is underway for Merrill Gardens, a joint venture by Second Fifty Communities, Pillar Properties, and Merrill Gardens. The 196-unit active senior living facility will have its own rooftop deck and sports bar and 24-hour dining with staffing and scheduled transportation. It will be adjacent to a 20-acre public park being developed as part of the restoration of Smith Branch Creek.
Hughes Development donated the former Central Energy Facility to Downtown Church, which is renovating the building for a new home. The church currently meets at 701 Whaley Street while the renovation is underway by the Garvin Design Group and Hammer Construction. The Gregg Street building will maintain its industrial character and will feature a stage in front of a roll-up garage door for indoor and outdoor events.
The state mental hospital campus was literally a city within a city. Surrounded by Columbia, the property was all state-owned and state-maintained and thus untouched by city overhauls. “It never got the infrastructure that any other block in Columbia would have had. We’re putting in municipal facilities that would have been there had it been any other 181 acres in the city,” Howard says. This infrastructure needs to be in place to attract developers.
The city has spent about $22 million on infrastructure so far. That includes more than two miles of new water, sewer, power, gas, and gigabit internet under the roads and more than a mile of new roads.
Also planned is a 20-acre public park off Colonial Drive, restoring much of the natural habitat along Smith Branch Creek and helping to mitigate flooding. The park will be owned and managed by the city.
After years of running underground in two 84-inch pipes or culverts, Smith Branch is being brought to the surface, and 2,000 feet will be restored and eventually run all the way to Colonial Drive. The two culverts are being retained and a unique storm-water system has been designed that will keep storm water in the culverts until it can be released safely. “We don’t think this has been done anywhere else,” Robert says.
But one of the most highly anticipated projects has yet to get off the ground. “The big one I am looking for now is the Babcock building,” Howard says. The iconic red-domed building is the image that many people associate with the state hospital campus and is part of the BullStreet District logo.
Richmond, Virginia, developer Clachan Properties has the Babcock building under contract and has been working closely with state and federal agencies to obtain the permits needed to do a historic renovation and create around 200 apartments.
Holding up the project is the question of whether a state tax break for abandoned buildings will be extended. The break is set to expire in 2019, but the General Assembly is considering extending it. Without that credit, the project is likely not viable.
Another major potential project is the proposed relocation to BullStreet of the University of South Carolina Medical School and associated programs. Hughes Development has donated 16 acres at Colonial Drive and Harden Street to USC for the health complex. Because of its commitment to have taxable property, the firm offset the donation with the purchase of an additional 16 acres from the Department of Mental Health that was not part of the original development. The project would include construction of a new building to house the medical school and a second science and laboratory building. USC is seeking funding from the General Assembly to launch the project.
“If USC pulls the trigger and moves the school to that location, it is going to be a game changer for everything on the north side of town,” Howard says. “That area of town will have a renovation like we have never seen before. I am very excited about that.”