Stagnant Columbia Landmark Stuck in Litigation

July 25, 2013

Investigative Reports

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Columbia Central Fire StationEditor’s Note: Today’s story is the first in a two-part series on development issues in Columbia.

In 1950, the distinctive Columbia Central Fire Station on Senate Street near the S.C. State House opened its doors, and for the next 45 years it served the Capital City both in function and form.

Designed by noted architect Heyward S. Singley, the building, located in the city’s bustling Vista district, is significant as an example of the Moderne/International style and in 2009 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The fire station closed in 1995 and was scheduled for demolition, but in 2006 the city sold the building for $1.4 million to Tom Prioreschi of Capitol Places. Yet despite several announcements of pending development over the years since, the vacant structure today is no closer to a tenant than when it closed, and, what’s worse, is now mired in an ongoing foreclosure battle between the city and Prioreschi’s Capitol Places.

The irony of a legal fight over a historic property stagnant for years while city officials tout their ability to adaptively re-use historic buildings to spur private development is not lost on critics of the city’s  handling of major development projects.

The city actively is planning to commit at least $31.25 million in public money to the redevelopment of the 181-acre, nearly two-centuries-old state mental health campus on Bull Street (including $16 million in the first 12 months alone for two 800-space parking garages in a city whose parking fund already is at a deficit through May) to help a private developer with his plans for a mixed use of new homes, stores and offices at the downtown site.

The city earlier this year voted to buy the 320,000-square-foot, Palmetto Compress warehouse in the Vista area, which is listed on the National Register of Historical Places, and 4.7 acres that the building sits on, for $5.65 million after a developer lost a battle with preservationists.

The vacant city fire station, located in the heart of a vibrant Vista district, shows how spotty the city’s track record has been with such structures, even when all the factors one would believe are necessary for successful development are in place around it and private-sector efforts are thriving.

On the positive side, the Vista itself has been described as the city’s crowning achievement of the past 30 years, fueled in large part by a tax-increment finance (TIF) bond and hospitality-tax revenue that allowed private development to flourish. That development and the need for a downtown grocery store also spurred one of the city’s signature victories for historic re-use – the Publix grocery store that now occupies the former Confederate printing plant at the corner of Gervais and Huger streets.

Additionally, investment in Main Street by such retailers as Mast General and the relocation of the Nickelodeon Theatre to the old Fox Theater have sparked a resurgence of economic activity in the downtown area.

On the other hand, however, there have been notable development failures in the city besides the vacant fire station, including plenty of downtown commercial retail space that remains empty and the University of South Carolina’s ill-managed Innovista project that failed to attract private developers for two new research buildings with a public price tag of about $100 million (another nearly $34 million was spent for a pair of parking garages, paid for by the city of Columbia and Richland County).

And public confidence in city officials remains questionable when persistent homelessness and crime are thrown into the mix.

Interviewed by The Nerve, Daniel Rickenmann, who was on City Council from 2004-2012 when plans for the former fire station were active, said the vacant building is a sad commentary on the city’s development efforts. He said besides the economic collapse of 2008 – not coincidentally, the last year in which new projects were announced for the site – the building’s history could be working against it.

“I don’t know that it hurt development, but it probably didn’t help spur development to have the designation done putting it on the National Register of Historic Places,” Rickenmann said. “There are a lot more complicating factors when you have that.

“Still, I know developers who are very interested in it, but as of now with it being tied up in litigation as the city attempts to foreclose on it, which Prioreschi is fighting, there’s nothing anyone can do but watch it continue to sit there.”

The development Rickenmann mentioned was the announcement of a scheduled July 2008 groundbreaking for the conversion of the former fire station to state-of-the-art offices housing Stevens & Wilkinson, one of Columbia’s leading engineering firms, and a retail outlet for A Taste of the South, an online and mail-order food business based in the Columbia area since 1987.

Plans at the time for the building called for adopting standards to achieve LEEDS environmental certification, incorporating a degree of hydrogen fuel-cell power generation to supplement the University of South Carolina’s big development push then, and adding a parking garage along with residential and retail space to the plot’s footprint. At the time, Prioreschi said the initial phase of that development, needed just to get the building ready to house the tenants, was $5 million.

Prioreschi has had success in adaptive re-use of historic buildings, namely the Barringer and Tapp’s buildings on Main Street, both of which were converted into residential use and have contributed to the city’s efforts to revitalize the downtown area.

Contacted by The Nerve, Prioreschi said he couldn’t comment specifically on the former fire station project or its development history while under foreclosure proceedings. But he said he remains optimistic about its future.

“Since we are involved in a legal action I cannot say anything other than it has and continues to be our objective to develop the property,” he said.

That also continues to be the objective of the city, which holds the lien on the property through the Columbia Development Corporation (CDC), a nonprofit organization sponsored by the city whose assets are independent of the city but whose staff are city employees. Its board members do not include any City Council members, nor are they appointed by the council.

The CDC initiated the foreclosure on the fire station property 18 months ago, according to CDC Executive Director Fred Delk.

“The economy definitely took a toll on that (2008) development, but (the CDC) got to a point where (it) had to do something because so many payments had been missed, and the terms of the mortgage were not being lived up to,” Delk said. “So we hope it resolves itself successfully in the future.”

How far into the future that happens to be, Delk said, is anyone’s guess.

“I’ve learned over the years not to speculate in any way about time frames when it comes to court cases,” he said. “There’s just no telling how long the foreclosure process could drag on. It could be months; it could be years.

“All I know is the court systems move slow; it’s still there; and it’s going to be there for a while.”

Delk conceded that the lack of development over a period of many years has been frustrating.

“It’s a real shame that you have a beautiful historic building in the heart of the Vista, just a block from the State House and a block from the (Columbia Metropolitan) Convention Center, sitting there empty year after year after year. Something has to change,” Delk said.

Delk didn’t immediately respond to The Nerve’s questions about how much the foreclosure lawsuit has cost taxpayers to date or how much the CDC pays annually in maintenance costs for the fire station,

For Rickenmann, that change needs to be in the ownership itself.

“I think (Prioreschi) had good intentions, but maybe bit off more than he could chew,” Rickenmann said. “He had it, and it just seems like he couldn’t get it done. It’s time to give someone else a chance to make something happen. It’s long past time something did.”

Reach Aiken at (803) 200-8809 or email him at ron@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.