The federal government has scuttled plans to tear down the former Veterans Administration Regional Office building in downtown Columbia and clear the site for a parking lot.
The General Services Administration, which manages U.S. government property, notified the City of Columbia that it’s “moving forward with the disposition process,” Mayor Steve Benjamin said.
“They’re jumping through the regulatory hoops that they have to to eventually make that building available for public use,” Benjamin.
Back in the June 2015, the GSA sought bids to raze the five-story, 93,500-square-foot building at the corner of Assembly and Laurel streets, next door to the Thurmond Federal Building and Thurmond U.S. Courthouse. That revelation drew protests of city leaders who said the property, located on a prime stretch of Assembly and overlooking Finlay Park, could be put to better use.
The GSA is required to coordinate with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to determine if the building is “suitable to meet the needs of the homeless,” a GSA spokeswoman stated in an email.
“One expression of interest was received” about using the building to house homeless, but that entity was not identified.
The price for the property will be determined by how it’s sold and to which entity, the spokeswoman added.
“The property could be provided to a state or local entity through a public benefit conveyance. It could also be sold through a negotiated sale to the state or municipality. A final option is to sell the property through a public auction,” she said.
If the building is turned over for development, it could be a candidate for mixed-use redevelopment that would include retail, commercial space and residential.
“It is an incredible location,” said Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corp., which assists economic development in Columbia through public-private partnerships and business development. “I would choose to have some sort of residential component there.”
The VA building is four blocks from where The Edge, a 15-story apartment is planned to be built at 1401 Assembly, next to the Richland Library. Construction of the $60 million project is expected to begin later this year.
Having more people living the area would help animate Finlay Park and spark further development, Delk said.
The building also is adaptable for office use, with large open areas suitable for being renovated for cubicles, Delk said. “It is a typical federal building in that it is nearly indestructible.”
Matt Kennell, president and CEO of City Center Partnership, said a developer could take advantage of federal and state tax credits to lower the cost of renovating the building.
Housing is a potential use for the building as well as “historic office space,” Kennell said, noting that there’s strong demand for Class A office space in the Central Business District.
Before a project is undertaken, Benjamin said that the federal government will have to be satisfied that security of the Thurmond federal building and the courthouse is not compromised.
The downtown VA office, which opened in 1949, was vacated about seven years ago when 400 staffers moved to a new building co-located on the grounds of Dorn VA Medical Center. The building, for the most part, has been empty ever since.
The location at Assembly and Richland is the former site of the mansion owned by businessman Edwin Wales Robertson and later Edwin G. Seibels, according to the Historic Columbia Foundation. Before that the property housed the home of John Taylor, much of whose land would become the City of Columbia, until it was destroyed by fire in 1893, the foundation said.