The Columbia City Council gave its final approval Tuesday to clear the way for a developer to start work on what’s described as the largest tract of urban land east of the Mississippi River.
A 4-2 vote means Columbia would commit at least $31 million towards a development agreement with developer Bob Hughes, who plans to turn the 181-acre former state mental hospital into a neighborhood with apartments, retail stores, restaurants, and even a possible minor league baseball stadium.
A hearing into the development took nearly six hours as nearly 60 citizens spoke both for and against the project. Most of the criticism dealt with how quickly city officials were moving forward since reaching a deal with Hughes two weeks ago.
Before the vote, Mayor Steve Benjamin said officials needed to act immediately because the city’s contract with the developer expires on July 31. “This deal will die today if we don’t move forward,” he said before a voting against a motion to delay the debate. “You might think it’s bluffing. You may think as you please, but this deal will die.”
Among the preservationists who spoke against the project was Robin Waites, the executive director of the Historic Columbia Foundation. Waites was concerned that only 5 of the site’s buildings are guaranteed preservation under the agreement.
“You’re assigning the demolition permit on an irreplaceable segment of our state’s history,” she told the council. “Not only do you give a green light to the wrecking ball with this vote, but we are going to pay for it.”
But it’s not clear how the city will pay for the site’s infrastructure, such as water and sewer lines. Columbia’s chief financial officer Jeff Palen told council members that there were several options, including a general obligation bond or tax-increment financing. The $31 million does not include two new parking garages that Columbia has promised to build once Hughes develops 120,000 square feet in taxable property.
Hughes gave media outlets a statement shortly after the vote, saying the “next step” is to complete the process of buying the property. He promised to “(maintain) a reverence for this unique historical site.”
Some speakers said they were in favor of revamping an “eyesore” on the edge of downtown Columbia. “Right now, this property is not a place where I’d want to bring my daughters down to after dark,” Columbia engineer Eric Dickey said, “Hopefully now, it will be.”