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BullStreet: Q&A with Robert Hughes, BullStreet Project Manager & President of Hughes Development Corporation

There is much to share from behind the scenes at BullStreet, and given how quickly things are moving on our end, we have decided to create this list of frequently asked questions to better share the good news.

We will be updating the list below on our website and encourage the public to sign up for our email newsletter on the home page. Additionally, we urge you to reach out with questions we may have overlooked.

We are also ramping up our social media presence, so please check us out on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. A lot of great things are happening at BullStreet, and it is our hope that this FAQ can serve as a refresher on where we are, as well as provide a few updates on where we believe everything will go from here.

What is BullStreet?

BullStreet is a 20-year, 181-acre development project in the heart of downtown Columbia. BullStreet’s front door is at the intersection of Elmwood Avenue and Bull Street, one mile from USC and the S.C. Capitol Building. It is a mixed-use redevelopment of the former South Carolina State Hospital campus, with an anticipated $1.2 billion annual economic impact.

Hughes Development Corporation (HDC) is serving as the project’s master developer, and we are deeply invested in working with the Midlands community to build a one-of-a-kind new neighborhood – a city within a city. At completion, we expect this project to be full of an engaging mix of local and national shops and restaurants, high-quality entertainment, comfortable residences, public art and beautiful parks.

Over a 20-year period, we anticipate over 3 million square feet of commercial development and up to 3,558 residential units on the site. It will become a new downtown neighborhood, filled with spaces that maintain the integrity and authenticity of the historic district; mix commercial and residential uses; create a walkable and bicycle-friendly place; provide parks and open space; maximize economic impact and increase the City and County’s tax base; and connect to the Midlands community.

This is the vision that HDC has set out to accomplish, and it is our job to create this as master developer. Developments within BullStreet will be handled by several different development firms, each with unique branding opportunities under the “BullStreet” name.

Notably, the Commons at BullStreet is the name we have given to the 31-acre retail development within the BullStreet neighborhood overall.

Why is This a 20-Year Project?

BullStreet is a 20-year project because it’s 3.3 million square feet of space (roughly the same size as the entire office market in the central business district of Greenville, S.C.), and no city in the country the size of Columbia is growing quickly enough to absorb that much area in any timeline shorter than that. Our aim is for BullStreet to be a catalyst to grow Columbia even more rapidly than the current yearly average.

A lot can change over a 20-year period, especially in a growing city like Columbia, S.C., so it’s hard to imagine diving into a public-private partnership over such a long timeline. However, we all agreed it would be worth it if the result is transforming an abandoned site of this size into a new downtown district.

Where Are We on the 20-Year Project Timeline?

As of this writing, the BullStreet development project has been underway for a little under three years, which is less than 15% of the way into our 20-year projected timeline. So far, we have approximately 110 acres either under contract, under development or sold to other developers. That is more than 60% of the site. If someone had asked us to guess that number three years ago, no one in our industry would have guessed it would be more than 50%.

Although it is hard to see its extent in places, incredible progress has been made at BullStreet.

Districts the size of BullStreet take decades to develop. Luckily, we are uniquely positioned to outperform other districts in similar-sized cities because of the work done before development officially began. For five years prior to April 2014, we worked through some of the more difficult parts of the development process (land take-down schedule, zoning, infrastructure agreements, etc.) and created a strong public-private partnership with the City of Columbia. As the master developer, we are committed to seeing the BullStreet neighborhood become a one-of-a-kind destination in South Carolina and have a great working relationship with the City of Columbia, which is key to making that happen.

How Does This Timeline Compare to Other Downtown Districts?

About 20 years ago in the Upstate, our company’s chairman, my father Bob Hughes, joined with a lot of like-minded local leaders and businesspeople to focus on transforming downtown Greenville, S.C., from a blighted, desolate area into what it is today: a bustling, vibrant urban core. Some unfamiliar with Greenville might think the change happened over the course of a few years; however, it took more than two decades, and it required that the entire community pull in the same direction for Greenville to become a case study on downtown revitalization and the effectiveness of strong public-private partnerships. We understand that Greenville is not Columbia, and Columbia is not Greenville, but with broad support and collaboration, we are confident we can emulate what happened in Greenville at BullStreet.

We are committed to Columbia for the long haul, just as we have been committed to Greenville. Our model must be financially viable, but we are not here to make a quick dime – we are here to create a destination neighborhood that reflects the authenticity of the Midlands – a place that builds municipal and county revenue and contributes significantly to livability in this region.  

What’s the Most Time-Consuming Task Thus Far?

When we first started exploring the possibility of developing BullStreet in 2008, it was completely off the grid. Not only was it not connected in an economic sense, because there was no tax base there, but it also was not connected physically to the daily operations of the city or the county.

It didn’t have modern roads, nor did it have anything resembling an up-to-date water and sewer system or power network. BullStreet had been an independent community, with its own ice house, bakery, laundry and more, as well as an enormous steam plant – the Central Energy Facility – that heated and cooled the entire facility. The majority of the campus was decommissioned by the S.C. Department of Mental Health in 2005, but the steam plant continued to run until the last building was vacated in 2014.

More than a mile of trellis carried a network of elevated steam pipes, in addition to underground steam pipes, across the campus to nearly every building on the site. We had to cut the steam lines to build the stadium; in fact, underneath much of that warren of underground pipes, we found multiple, deeper layers of pipe systems that then had to be addressed. Notably, supplemental HVAC had to be brought in to run the Hall Institute while the ballpark was under construction, until a proper power grid could be initiated.

As for the roads, it’s not as simple as putting down pavement. We have had to run all utilities – water, sewer, electricity, gas, and telecommunications – under the roads before even thinking about asphalt. This is the major reason why the city is contributing to the project.

An existing business district has all of its infrastructure already in place, including road networks, sidewalks and streetlights.

None of that existed at BullStreet when we started, and we have already laid two miles of new roadways with a lot more to come. All of these improvements will ultimately be owned by the City of Columbia, which is consistent with every other urban district we have studied in the country. We still have a long way to go, but we are excited to be bringing 181 acres back on the grid as a partnership with local government.

Notably, BullStreet is S.C.’s first urban gigabit community, thanks to an infrastructure partnership with Spirit Communications.

What is the Master Developer’s Role, and What Progress Has Been Made Lately?

When the State of South Carolina decided to sell BullStreet, they wanted someone to serve as the master developer and purchase the entire Dept. of Mental Health campus. They received a lot of interest for different parcels within the site, but only one offer – ours – for the entire parcel. In December 2010, Hughes Development entered into a contract with DMH to purchase the entire parcel over a 7-year period (this was extended to 8 years when we added the 16-acre Hall Institute parcel to the development plan in 2015).

As master developer, we are charged with setting the vision for the entire site and seeing it through to fruition. In order to accomplish this, we have identified two main responsibilities.

First, we seek out other developers with deep domain expertise, such as Clachan Properties (who has completed over 54 historic renovations) for projects like renovating the Babcock Building – the red-domed building seen from Elmwood Avenue.

Our second responsibility is to step up and fill in when a project needs to be completed, like the First Base Building, which could not have been built later because of its necessary integration with the ballpark.

For another example, we sold the historic Parker Annex building – located at the intersection of Barnwell and Calhoun – to the local company, Diversified Development. They have done a phenomenal job preserving the building’s historic features while creating 9,000 square feet of prime office space at Barnwell and Calhoun. They’ve even put in a bocce court.

For the planned USC Health Sciences Campus, Hughes Development Corporation is donating 16 acres of land to the University of South Carolina. To make up for the 16 acres’ worth of property tax revenue on that site, we arranged to buy an additional 16-acre parcel to add to BullStreet, above and beyond our original agreement for 165 acres. USC’s investment will spur additional development on BullStreet and into the surrounding areas.

In some cases, Hughes maintains property ownership and does the development work in-house, then rents space to tenants. Examples of this model are the aforementioned First Base Building, home to Ogletree Deakins, TCube Solutions and Founders Credit Union; the Bakery, where businesses like the SOCO cowork are leading the way for the BullStreet Technology Village; and the Ensor Building, where the top floor will house a local business and the bottom floor and outdoor patio will house a restaurant.

How does Downtown Church fit into the vision for BullStreet?

Announced just recently, Hughes Development Corporation is donating the 12,731 square-foot Central Energy Facility building to Downtown Church, which will invest roughly $2 million for the renovation.

Some have asked if having a church on site will hurt our ability to build restaurants/retail given some of our state’s liquor laws, but many of those laws have changed, and churches can now waive this restriction.

Downtown Church is a lot more than just a group that meets on Sundays. They are engaged community leaders who understand what we are trying to accomplish at BullStreet and will bring a cross-section of Columbia to the neighborhood. We are very excited to have them as a partner and are strong believers that every great neighborhood has a great church.

What’s the Deal with the Ballpark, Again?

For a quick refresher on the ballpark, Hughes Development Corporation donated the land for the stadium and its entrance plaza to the City of Columbia as part of a partnership to get BullStreet off the ground. Spirit Communications Park, owned by the City of Columbia, is leased and managed by Hardball Capital and is home to the Columbia Fireflies Minor League Baseball team. In its first year, the stadium was awarded Ballpark of the Year by Ballpark Digest magazine, welcomed more than 300,000 visitors to the site and has exceeded all expectations. The Fireflies lease guarantees that Minor League Baseball will be played in Columbia for the next 30 years in a world-class stadium.

Another 20 acres of land has been set aside for development of a new city park, which is planned to feature walking trails, public art and a dog park. The city will own and manage the park, just as it owns all of the public improvements throughout BullStreet.

What is The Commons at BullStreet?

The Commons at BullStreet is one section of the overall BullStreet development, where our retail development partner, Hughes Commercial Properties, is planning a 31-acre mixed-use residential, retail and hospitality development, which is often referred to as the “retail development.” Based on our conversations with other developers around the country, a retail development like this typically takes 7 years to complete.

Our development partner is roughly 4 years into the project (having started marketing the Commons at BullStreet in 2013, a year before we officially began development on BullStreet in April 2014). They are confident in their ability to deliver on the vision that was set 4 years ago, and we are providing them as much support as possible.

Notably, Hughes Development Corporation, as master developer, and Hughes Commercial Properties (HCP), retail developer of the Commons at BullStreet, are wholly separate companies, although they share a name and a familial connection.

What’s Next? What Happened to Those 41 Letters of Intent?

A lot continues to happen at BullStreet every day. As of the writing of this statement, we have three different construction crews on the site: one doing abatement/demolition for a new development, one installing infrastructure for future development and one renovating a historic building. We expect at least this amount of work on the site for the foreseeable future.

In 2014, our retail development partner, HCP, mentioned to The State Newspaper that 41 letters of intent had been signed for their retail development. Unfortunately, many took this to mean that BullStreet had full commitments from 41 companies to locate there, which was not the case. (In our business, a letter of intent does not equate to a full commitment.) Many of those companies are still in active negotiations with HCP, but many are not, and some are no longer even in business. This is extremely typical and is not something that brings concern to anyone directly involved in the development.

Cobb Theaters’ announcement that it had changed plans to locate at the Commons at BullStreet came as no surprise to us or to our retail development partner, who has been working on opportunities created by Cobb’s decision for months. Cobb’s decision is not a development issue for BullStreet, but the rapid response by so many in the community has helped us realize that we need to address current questions and share more of the good news.

Announcements of any future BullStreet retailers will come directly from tenants according to their own schedules. This is often required in leases for competitive reasons, but this is also a long-standing practice in our office. We are hopeful for more announcements, but there is no way to provide a timeline without the risk of setting false expectations.

No one wants to see more tenants at BullStreet than we do. There are multiple development firms working tirelessly to create the district we know BullStreet can become, but we are taking the long-term approach that we believe will fulfill the vision that began when we broke ground 3 years ago.

Our Commitment

This city is a remarkable place, a quintessentially real Southern city where people love where they live, and where volunteerism, creativity and community involvement are remarkably high. We are committed to building a community at BullStreet that reflects the authenticity that has helped Columbia rank as the most livable city in South Carolina. We want to retain more of the talent Columbia creates and bring companies to the market that may have overlooked Columbia in the past.

We are grateful for your patience, trust and interest in BullStreet. We are just as eager as you are to see BullStreet become the beautiful place that all of Columbia knows it can be.

In the interest of increased transparency, we are helping bring back the Bull Street Commission and are developing a regular email newsletter as part of our reinvigorated communications strategy. This project is on its way to becoming what we all want it to be, and we hope that you will work with us to see it happen.

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