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Tower takedown: What EdR’s exit means for future dorm projects

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EdR’s withdrawal from a student dorm project could limit the scope of future development projects at the corner of College and Main streets in downtown Columbia. (Photo/Chuck Crumbo)


By Chris Cox

Published Oct. 16, 2015

(From Sept. 28-Oct. 11, 2015 print issue of Columbia Regional Business Report)

A Memphis, Tenn., developer’s plan to build a 15-story student dorm one block from the University of South Carolina is no more. What the failed project may mean for Columbia’s future and the property itself is up for debate.

EdR has moved on from its attempts to enter the Columbia market, Josh Speed of Newmark Grubb Wilson Kibler said. EdR’s project had been opposed by USC since it first debuted this summer, as school officials said the building would cast a shadow over the nearby historic Horseshoe.

The now-dead project was planned for the corner of Main and College streets, where the Sandy’s restaurant and Baptist Collegiate Ministries are located. But the property’s hefty price tag meant more floors in EdR’s plan, and the developer never could quite make the math work.

Memphis, Tenn.-based developer EdR’s proposal to build a 15-story dorm ran into stiff opposition from USC supporters who feared the high-rise would overshadow the Horseshoe section of campus. (Image/Provided)
“We have investigated a variety of options, and even researched reducing the height of the building by expanding the footprint onto land adjacent to our location.  But we were simply not able to make the numbers work to create a financially feasible development at a lower height,” EdR said in a statement.

“While we believe this community would have done much to revitalize and drive the growth of the South Main District, it was also obvious to us that this development would not be welcomed by a vocal contingent of the university and the local communities.

“In our company’s 51 years, we have created and built our business and reputation around mutually beneficial and long-term partnerships with universities and cities across the country.  We prefer to invest our time and resources toward positive opportunities that are well received.”

A USC spokesman did not return calls for comment.

USC to blame?

Developers received project approval from the Board of Zoning Appeals in June but the plan had been in limbo with the Design-Development Review Commission ever since. Commission meetings were postponed in July and August as EdR worked with university officials on a possible compromise, which may have included building elsewhere in the area.

“Representatives of the two groups will discuss options regarding the proposed Icon on Main collegiate housing community with the goal of achieving a solution beneficial to all parties,” USC and EdR said in a joint press release in July.

In June, the university’s alumni association launched an online campaign against the proposed dorm, which included the website and various social media sites. The site’s petition had more than 2,000 signatures within its first day live, executive director Jack Claypoole said at the time.

Wilson Kibler responded shortly after, saying the project would not cast a shadow over the revered USC grounds. The company, which was brokering the deal, said its own shadow studies suggested the iconic site would be untouched by the project.

But EdR ultimately succumbed to public pressure and left the project. So was it USC that forced their hand? Not really, according to CBRE research director Ben Johnson.

The school may have been able to throw its weight around in the press, but it had no sway when the Zoning Board approved the project in June. And most project supporters felt USC should have just purchased the property if it wanted to dictate what goes there.

The alumni association petition was not university-sanctioned, Johnson noted, and the project had its share of opposition that was not affiliated with the school.

“I think USC certainly had a role in it,” Johnson said, “but I don’t think they were the death knell of the development itself. I think math was.”

Time for collaboration?

Matt Kennell, executive director of the City-Center Partnership, is aiming for positives to come from the loss of EdR. It is his hope that the debate ignites discussion over the long-term future of Columbia.

“Hopefully the good that will come out of it is that we’ll sit back and the powers that be, and maybe some people that haven’t been involved in the process, can come together and try to go through some sort of exercise to determine the future and what kind of downtown city-center we want to be,” he said. “Instead of these things happening by accident or by random, to be deliberate where people will feel like we’re on the same page as we go forward.”

The city of Columbia has its own comprehensive plan for the future, as does USC with its big master plan. That includes the Innovista project sprouting up along Greene Street not far from where EdR’s project was planned.

But the demise of the developer’s project might signal the time for all sides to come together to plan out what the city truly wants to be, Kennell said.

“I really think is that Columbia is at a crossroads,” he said. “It’s a good thing. There’s a healthy friction developing now between almost every project. This has been going on in Charleston for a number of years; it’s been an issue in Greenville. I just now think we are getting to the point where every project is going to go through a different level of scrutiny maybe than it did in the past.

“I think we may need to sit down and bring the university and the city and the business owners and the property owners together and revisit what we want our downtown to look like.”

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin is optimistic about the city’s future, despite the EdR road block. He promoted collaboration amongst all Midlands sectors as a way to pave future development.

"I do regret that the people of the Midlands won’t have the opportunity to benefit from this development or the tens of millions of dollars in new private investment and economic impact it was expected to generate,” he said. “That being said, we are more committed than ever to promoting, sound, vertical urban development in our city’s core and continuing to work with USC, the private sector and the community as a whole to leverage our shared assets to make that vision a reality and build a city we can all be proud of."

Sandy’s forever?

The nearly half-acre is back on the market and listed for $2.5 million, Speed said. Owned in a joint partnership between Sandy’s owner Bud Sanderson and Drake Development’s Bucky Drake, who could not be reached for comment, the property would be the highest land sale per square foot that Johnson can ever remember in Columbia.

“There’s a lot of people (interested),” Speed confirmed. “But nothing has actually been executed.”

Obviously, most would like to see the property get redeveloped. That portion of the South Main corridor hasn’t changed much over the last several decades, and the site is primed for an uptick in property taxes, which could see upwards of $500,000 in local property taxes depending on the project.

“To turn that … into ($500,000) is a good thing for everybody,” Johnson said. “I just don’t think the development that was proposed was the right one for the site.”

But the clock is ticking for any potential student dorm company mulling the location. The city of Columbia’s tax credit for student housing developers expires at the end of this year, and given the price tag on the property, it may not make financial sense for one to join after 2015.

“The challenge on that site now, with the tax credit sunsetting on Dec. 31, they’ve really got to hustle to get it under contract, get drawings, get plans submitted to city staff and get approved for the tax credit,” Johnson said.

“I think there’s lots of potential for redevelopment between now and Dec. 31, but if something doesn’t happen by then we’ll have Sandy’s Hot Dogs for years.”

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

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