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Where there’s air, there’s real estate: Tomlin exploring parking garage apartments

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By Chris Cox
ccox@scbiznews.com
Published Sept. 8, 2015

From the Aug. 31-Sept. 13 issue of the Columbia Regional Business Report

Don Tomlin sat 25 stories atop Columbia, looking down from his perch inside the Capital City Club.

The local developer and investor had experienced recent success with his 485 city townhouses, and was in search of more property to create additional housing for the business district’s current and future workforce. That’s when he spotted from above the area’s plethora of parking garages, left untapped despite its available resources.

lady street parking garage with air rights
Columbia City Council recently approved an air-right agreement that will allow developer Don Tomlin exclusive rights to build vertically atop city-owned garages for the next 10 years. (Photo/Staff)
“I said, ‘There is an asset that is not on the tax rolls,’” he recalled. “These garages generate no tax. If you approach it not to look for tax credits, but to pay taxes, that would be a wonderful place to start.”

More than a year later and work continues on Tomlin’s plan, which calls for high-rise apartments atop as many as six city garages. The first of those will come at the Lady Street garage, which is a half-a-block from the Statehouse.

“I like the project very much,” said Matt Kennell, City-Center Partnership president and CEO. “I think it really is smart density. It’s a way to create density in an area that really didn’t exist before. They’re sort of creating space out of air. And at the same time providing a product that doesn’t exist.”

In June, Columbia City Council approved an air-rights agreement that gave Tomlin’s development group, Hallmark Homes, exclusive rights to build vertically atop the garages for the next 10 years. And in August, City Council approved a lease agreement to provide parking spots for the apartment’s tenants. Up to 425 parking spaces from the city in the Lady Street and Washington Street garages will be leased.

“We acknowledge that parking is such a premium,” city manager Teresa Wilson said. “And even though we are very excited about the possibility of vertical development, we also have to make sure all of our tenants have adequate parking.”

But before buildings begin to rise into the Columbia sky, each garage must have its own due diligence to address its feasibility, Wilson noted.

“Just because they have the opportunity to do it,” she said, “there has to be a separate agreement each time they want to move forward on any individual one of our garages.”

The process is ongoing, Tomlin said. Hallmark Homes currently has teams assessing the Lady Street garage and, because of that, has no cost estimate for the project available to unveil. How much work has to be done to the existing structure and whether it even has the capability of supporting an apartment building must be figured out first.

In addition to Lady Street, the air-rights contract also includes the Taylor Street, Park Street, Washington Street, Lincoln Street and Cannon garages. Hallmark Homes is working with the city to determine the second garage for a build, Tomlin said.

“It is a very expensive from an engineering point of view because you have to have a world-class engineer who does world-class work to figure out how to leave the parking garage better than you found it, stronger and conforming to modern code,” he said. “So you actually have to provide stiffening, strengthening, etc. as you go. It is a daunting and very expensive architectural engineering process.”

Similar high-rise residential apartments have gone up in Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C., Kennell said. And Greenville-based real estate company Windsor-Aughtry is close to completing a hotel atop a previously existing garage in Roanoke, Va.

This type of development is essential for Columbia to stay on a competitive playing field with its neighbors, Kennell said. And Tomlin believes such amenities will help retain University of South Carolina graduates who often leave for other cities.

“It’s just a new type of residential development,” Kennell said. “That steel, high-rise, glass construction as I understand it, that we just have not seen here.

“ … It cements the reputation of being a bona fide residential destination. I think it creates pedestrian activity, helps with traffic issues because people can walk versus getting in their cars.”

Reach Chris Cox at 803-726-7545 or on Twitter @chrisbcox.

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