Columbia’s BullStreet District Blends Commercial, Retail, Residential in the Heart of the CityFeb 21, 2023 09:24AM ● By C. Grant Jackson
When Dr. Laura Valleni and her daughter moved to the BullStreet District in May of 2019, she had a hard time imagining what was coming, but she still wanted to be a part of it.
“A friend of mine was the first person to purchase a home at TownPark at BullStreet, and she and her daughter were the only two people living in the entire BullStreet District, which I found a bit unsettling. But as I saw the plans and construction underway, the more I thought about this space, the more I wanted to be a part of it,” Valleni said. So she and her daughter became the third family to move into TownPark, the district’s first residential project, located just off Calhoun Street.
“When we first moved in, BullStreet felt empty and did not have a strong community feel. However, this quickly changed as the development really took off,” she said. Completion of the first phase of Merrill Gardens, a senior living community, gave BullStreet additional new residents, said Valleni, a neonatologist, and that has continued with the opening of apartments in the historic Babcock Building. “It has been amazing watching the changes taking place in the BullStreet District over the past 3½ years.”
Columbia’s BullStreet District is moving from vision to walkable reality with the construction and occupancy of hundreds of residential units with many more to follow, and the opening and projected opening of commercial, retail, and public spaces. An urban neighborhood, which eventually could be home to upward of 7,000 residents, is being created on the former state Department of Mental Health site, once the home of the South Carolina Lunatic Asylum.
“It feels like BullStreet is at a place where you can certainly begin to understand the vision that we have talked about for so long,” said Robert Hughes III, president of Greenville-based Hughes Development Corp. Hughes is the master developer for the sprawling 181-acre site. Touted as the largest urban redevelopment tract on the East Coast, the BullStreet District has attracted national, regional and local developers blending the adaptive reuse of historic properties with new construction.
“It is nice to be at a place where it is really visible,” Hughes said. “When you talk about a 20-year development, being seven years into that, you wonder exactly when that turning point is. It certainly feels like that turning point was in the last several months at BullStreet, and it is only going to continue to get better and better.”
Two entrances off the namesake Bull Street into the property are finished, and construction is about to start on a third, and several blocks in the front 30 acres are completed with office and retail. You add all the apartments under construction, and it all shows just how much is happening at BullStreet, Hughes said.
To see all of the activity, “there really is a sense of the overall vision, and what can happen when you mix all of these uses together and create great public spaces,” he said.
Valleni says BullStreet is becoming Columbia’s newest hot spot. “It is a wonderful space for biking, walking, running, bird watching and gathering with friends, whether at Starbucks, Publico, Segra Park, or Page Ellington Park. We love to entertain because there is so much to do.” Another plus: “Having dinner at home that is capped off by watching fireworks from our deck,” after a baseball game at Segra Park.
Valleni also loves BullStreet’s location with its proximity to Five Points, the University of South Carolina, the State Capitol, Main Street, and the Vista as well as Prisma Health of the Midlands, where she practices. Additionally, the site is very convenient for getting onto I-26 and I-77.
Proximity to USC is partly what drew Amaya Emmons, 21, and her partner to BullStreet to be among the first to move into The Babcock, the historic building that was the centerpiece of the S.C. Department of Mental Health Campus.
They were among the first group of residents to move into The Babcock’s main building, Emmons said. The first residents moved into apartments created from a former dining hall adjacent to the main building.
Emmons and her partner, who moved into a studio apartment on the third floor in July, are preparing to graduate from USC, and the move into The Babcock was a conscious decision to move away from student housing and toward a more adult environment. Emmons mother had seen an ad for The Babcock and recommended they take a look. Emmons, who loves historic buildings, did some research on the Babcock, and then she and her partner toured the renovated building. They left the tour determined to move in, Emmons said, and have not been disappointed.
She loves not only the proximity to USC but also the urban nature of the BullStreet District, with its connectivity to Segra Park, home to the Columbia Fireflies professional baseball team, and businesses in and just beyond the development. Segra Park, built in 2015-‘16 as a public park owned by the city, was the first major piece of the BullStreet redevelopment initiative.
“I’m not a big baseball fan, but I love listening to the stadium. We open our windows almost every single day and the stadium is playing music for whatever event they have going on,” Emmons said.
And the nearby Starbucks has become her second home. “I love that Starbucks. And I feel like there’re so many good businesses all along that area.” Those businesses include REI and the Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant currently under construction, and others on the way.
The walkability of the development has been a big plus for Emmons. In January, she started an internship at the Central Carolina Community Foundation, located in the First Base Building adjoining Segra Park, a short walk from The Babcock, something Emmons didn’t know originally. The night before her interview, she Googled the foundation’s location. “It was like five minutes. I was like, well this is fabulous, I don’t even have to drive over there.” Emmons plans to attend USC’s law school after graduation and hopes she and her partner can keep living in The Babcock.
Much of BullStreet’s visible growth comes from an explosion of residential projects, like TownPark and The Babcock. Nearly a thousand residential units are either under construction or open – 200 are occupied – in five separate projects, and a sixth was recently announced.
The latest residential project is an $80-million, 355 market-rate, multifamily apartment complex to be developed by Framework Group LLC of Tampa, Florida, on six acres just beyond the left outfield wall of Segra Park.
The Framework Group apartments will range from studios to three-bedroom units with around 20 freestanding townhomes. The main apartment building will wrap around a structured parking garage. Construction on the site – bounded by Gregg, Freed, and Barnwell streets and Segra Park – is expected to begin in late 2023 or early 2024. Framework owns the entire block with the exception of property at the corner behind the right field wall, which Hughes has retained for future commercial development, likely an office building.
The project was made possible in part by tax credits granted through Richland County and the city of Columbia, and includes about $22 million in public infrastructure. That infrastructure includes the parking garage – which will serve not only the residents, but also other BullStreet projects and visitors – public streetscaping, on-street parking, and a public art walk between the complex and Segra Park.
The art walk is Framework’s solution to the very urban problem of fitting a residential complex just beyond the outfield of a baseball park, said Nick Herring, Framework’s senior vice president for development. “We are going to create a public Artwalk that is going to allow both residents and patrons of BullStreet to move between the apartment complex and the stadium.” The Artwalk will be lined with sculptures and other public artwork, and anchored by an art gallery that will be part of the apartment building.
Framework did something similar in Sarasota, Florida, at the Arcos luxury apartment complex working with local artists and the Ringling College of Art & Design to put on exhibits from local artists. Framework is not working with any art groups in Columbia yet, Herring said.
Framework Group, which specializes in urban redevelopment projects, also developed the Charles, a 208-unit residential community, which opened in 2022 in downtown Spartanburg. “We are big believers in cities and bigger believers in downtowns,” Herring said.
Like many of the BullStreet residential communities, Framework’s project will include indoor and outdoor amenities, some of which will take advantage of terraces and other spaces created by the building’s four- to six-story height.
The complex’s name, which has yet to be determined, Herring said “will really be rooted in that place. It will be loaded with meaning and authenticity.”
Herring added that the more that Frameworks learned about The BullStreet District, the more “they knew it was going to be carefully curated with good developers and good projects. It was all going to make sense and be a great place to live, play and work. And we wanted to hitch our wagon to that concept in the BullStreet development and to Hughes Development.”
While the Framework Group project is not out of the ground yet, five other residential projects at BullStreet are either open and occupied or getting ready to start construction. They include:
TownPark at Bull Street – 28 townhomes, new construction.
Merrill Gardens at Columbia – a senior living community of 196 units, new construction.
The Babcock – 208 units in an adaptive reuse of the historic Babcock Building.
Bennet at BullStreet – 269 apartments, new construction.
Midtown at BullStreet – 90 units of affordable housing, new construction.
Four of the six phases of TownPark, the district’s first residential project, are complete, with work beginning on the final two phases. Of the 28 two- and three-story homes, all 17 in the first four phases have been sold, and Columbia real estate agent The Moore Co. is accepting reservations for Phase 5 and 6. TownPark was developed by The Terranova Group in Greenville.
Located along Gregg and Freed streets, the senior living community Merrill Gardens at Columbia was the second residential project. Phase I, which is open, consists of 120 units, and Phase II, which will soon be under construction, will add another 76, for a total of 196 units.
Developed by the family-owned Merrill Gardens of Seattle, Washington, the Columbia location offers seniors both independent- and assisted-living in a range of options in pet-friendly studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments.
Merrill Gardens also is adjacent to Page Ellington Park. a 20-acre public park that features running and walking paths, a dog park, a natural water habitat, and its own thriving ecosystem. It has been called the crown jewel of the BullStreet District. Located along Gregg Street between Colonial Drive and the Central Energy event venue, Page Ellington Park, which was built by Hughes Development Corporation and given to the city, is managed by the City of Columbia Parks and Recreation Department.
Two years after fire ravaged the historic Babcock Building leaving developers wondering if the building was a complete loss, the first residents have moved in, and are awaiting the installation of a replacement for the iconic red dome that will once again be a beacon for downtown Columbia.
Just prior to the Babcock building reconstruction, ”we awoke to the cupola burning,” said TownPark resident Valleni. It was the second large fire in less than two years at the building. When the Columbia Fire Department responded around 6:30 a.m. on Sept. 12, 2020, firefighters found heavy flames throughout the 254,000-square-foot building. Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins initially believed the building was gone and was quoted as saying the collapse of the dome reminded him of the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. But fortunately, the damage was largely contained to the building’s central section leaving the other wings relatively undamaged.
Clachan Properties of Virginia, a well-known developer of historic properties, would continue with the renovation and the Babcock, like the mythological phoenix, would rise from the ashes. Sixty-one of the planned 208 luxury studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments are now open or preleased. All 208 units are expected to be completed by early 2023, according to Hughes Development. “If you figure an average of two people per unit that will bring around 400 new residents to the site,” Hughes said.
Amenities for residents include lounge areas, game rooms, fitness centers, a yoga studio, a grilling courtyard, a pool, and a dog park.
The Babcock building, built in four stages between 1857 and 1885 to accommodate a growing number of mentally ill patients, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The replacement dome “is being built now off-site and will be delivered in one piece and put on the building,” Hughes said. That is expected to happen in the second quarter of 2023.
Bennet at BullStreet
One of the most visible residential construction projects under construction is Bennet at BullStreet, a 269 apartment complex that will bring another estimated 500 residents to the district. Being developed by Proffitt Dixon partners of Charlotte, the 280,000-square-foot complex will include studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom units.
The complex is just off Bull Street between the recently opened WestLawn Building, a 79,000-square-foot cross-laminated timber office and retail building that is the new home of the Robinson Gray Stepp & Laffitte law firm, and Segra Park and the adjacent 109,000-square-foot First Base Building.
The Bennet will span two blocks connected by a skybridge over Matilda Evans Street, a new street that was built as a third outlet to Bull Street. The complex is being built in two phases, with the first phase expected to be completed in late summer of 2023 and the second phase by the end of 2023, Hughes said. Phase One is bounded by Boyce, Freed, Pickens, and Matilda Evans streets. Phase Two is bounded by Matilda Evans, Pickens, Saunders, and Boyce streets.
The project also includes 45,000 square feet of retail space that will be managed by Hughes Development, as well as a 350-space parking garage. The retail space is intended to complement other nearby businesses, further enhancing BullStreet as a vibrant, walkable neighborhood.
Adding to that vibrancy will be what Hughes calls The Lawn, a public space at the end of Pickens Street adjacent to the Bennet. The Lawn could be the site of yoga classes in the morning and street festivals on the weekend, and cornhole games and small concerts, Hughes said. “It will just be a great outdoor event space, and really a place that we hope is a destination within BullStreet. But it will be a public space, not a space you have to pay to enter. A space that you just want to come and hangout, and you’ll meet a friend there, and there is always something going on,” Hughes said.
The Lawn will be framed by the Williams Building, the historic administration building at the end of Pickens Street. “We have retained and restored the central portion of that building with its four columns,” Hughes said. “It will be left open-air and will be part of the public space. The final design and layout is still in the works, and exactly what it will be and how it will function is still forthcoming.“
Midtown at BullStreet
Adding to the residential mix of the district will be Midtown at BullStreet, 90 units of attainable rental housing being developed by Connelly Development of Lexington County on two acres near Page Ellington Park on the eastern side of BullStreet.
Midtown will have 18 two-bedroom townhomes, and 72 one-, two-, and three-bedroom garden-style apartments. And as with other residential developments in the district, Midtown will feature amenities including a community room, computer room, exercise room, playground, and gazebo. Midtown is expected to be available in the fall of 2023.
Attainable housing is housing that is affordable for those who make between 80 and 120 percent of an area’s median income or AMI. For Columbia, according to census data, the median household income is around $48,000. Those are often individuals such as teachers, nurses, police officers, and other first responders.
“Attainable housing at the BullStreet District helps the city meet one of our most pressing needs because it helps keep workers in Columbia to benefit our workforce,” Columbia Mayor Daniel Rickenmann said when the project was announced in August 2022. “Workers are leaving Columbia because the cost of housing is too high. Having attainable housing in one of our most high-profile developments is good for our city and our workforce and addresses a critical need.”
BullStreet purposely presents a great diversity of residential opportunities. “We’ve got for-sale townhomes, for-rent senior apartments, for-rent historical restoration, for-rent new construction, affordable housing. Everything is a little bit different,” said Chandler Cox, a project manager with Hughes Development. “We thought that was important to make sure that BullStreet as a community, a district, can serve as much of the community as possible. So we’ve tried to create diversity within BullStreet too.”
At the completion of Midtown, “we will have over 1,000 residents living in over 700 units of either attainable housing, market-rate apartments, for-sale townhomes, or senior housing, with plans to develop student housing as well,” Hughes said. “The variety of housing types is necessary to provide an authentic mixed-use, urban lifestyle experience.”
And these projects are just the beginning of a residential buildup that Hughes believes could mean close to 7,000 people living in the BullStreet District.
Impact both in and beyond the BullStreet District
That much development and that many new residents will have a significant impact on the economy of the north side of Columbia, said at-large Columbia City Council member Howard Duvall, who chairs the city’s Bull Street Commission, an advisory body to the master developer. “Not only will BullStreet have several thousand residences, but it will also have the new medical school and research facilities that will attract investment,” Duvall said. With that much redevelopment, Duvall also feels that “the single family homes north of Elmwood Avenue will be in great demand.”
The rapid residential growth in BullStreet also may have political implications if the new residents are politically active, Duvall said. The BullStreet development is in Columbia City Council District 2, as is the city’s central business district, which is itself experiencing considerable residential growth, although much of that is student housing. District 2 is currently represented by Ed McDowell.
The explosion in residential units is also expected to spur additional retail growth in the BullStreet District, which has been slower than many would have liked.
“We are constantly looking at retail,” Hughes said. “The old adage is that rooftops bring retail, and that is a big part of the work now, to bring a great mixture of local, regional and national retail tenants.”
But Hughes points out that outdoor retailer REI, fronting Bull Street, has been open for two years and is doing very well, and Starbucks opened about a year and a half ago. Starbucks, he said, “seems to have a line every hour of the day.” Iron Hill Brewery will open in the first half of 2023, and Publico at BullStreet, which replaced Bone-In BBQ in the Ensor Building next to Segra Park, opened in the first half of 2022. “So we have a variety of dining and shopping options. We think there will be a lot of retail announcements in the near future,” Hughes said.
One thing the new BullStreet residents will need is a grocery, and the plan all along has been to bring a grocery store to BullStreet, Hughes said. “This part of town needs a key grocery store and we are in ongoing conversations to make that happen,” but there is nothing to announce yet.
USC Health Sciences Campus coming
BullStreet retailers and restaurants will be supported not only by “the residents here, but also by the office workers here and the office workers nearby,” Hughes said. “I think there are 10,000 people on the Prisma Health campus directly catty-corner to us,” about a quarter-mile from the site where the University of South Carolina plans to build its new health sciences campus on six acres on the northeast corner of Harden Street on land donated by Hughes Development Corp.
The university in mid-December named Gilbane, a construction and development firm, headquartered in Providence, Rhode Island, with offices on Columbia’s Devine Street, as the primary developer of the $300 million health sciences campus.
Construction is expected to begin in 2025 and be completed in 2027 on the first two buildings, a medical education building and a multidisciplinary research building.
In addition to the first two buildings, which will have an estimated 292,000 gross square feet, long-term plans for the campus include a brain center that will build on the university’s McCausland Center for Brain Imaging.
Students and the faculty and staff to serve them will contribute to the health science campus being “a massive catalyst for development. The amount of stuff that will spin off of that site is going to be tremendous,” Hughes said.
And demand for office space has been great since the beginning, Hughes said. The First-Base Building, adjacent to Segra Park, is fully leased, and The Westlawn is tracking in the same direction. “It shows that there is a demand for high-quality office space in a great urban location, and that will just mean that we will have to do it again,” Hughes said.
BullStreet is exciting right now because of the momentum, Hughes said. “It is not linear growth, it is exponential growth, so much is going on at one time. The velocity of activity has been tremendous, better and more than we could have hoped for.”