‘The building is just enormous’ City hopes to give hulking landmark a new life

The city of Columbia soon hopes to find a buyer willing to convert this massive warehouse built to bale cotton into some other new use, such as housing, shops and/or offices. Robert Behre/Staff

A hulking brick warehouse near this city’s center could become one of the state’s biggest preservation success stories —at least if measured purely by square feet.

The Palmetto Compress and Warehouse building has stood empty for years and was almost torn down, but that demolition threat ultimately pushed the city to step in and buy it earlier this year.

Soon, the city is expected to decide who would be best positioned to rehabilitate it for a post-industrial life.

The Columbia Development Corporation, a nonprofit, received a $5.6 million loan from the city to buy the building. It has been marketing it, and developers’ offers are due by Wednesday, director Fred Delk said.

“I think we’re going to get a lot of different proposals,” he said, “and they’re going to range from student residential with some commercial to the other extreme of some combinations of lodging, market residential, office uses and commercial uses.”

“I’ve shown it quite a few times to restaurants who would be tenants in other people’s developments,” he added.

The building measures 400 feet by 200 feet and was built in 1917 and 1923 to compress cotton before it was loaded onto a nearby train. Its 320,000 square feet could hold up to 500 bales.

“The building is just enormous,” Delk said. “You could put three standard-sized hotels in there.”

When it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, it was one of only four surviving cotton compress facilities in the South — and one of the state’s largest cotton warehouses.

Robin Waites, executive director of the Historic Columbia Foundation, said she expects the building soon will be given landmark status by the city.

“I think it was pretty close to being lost,” she said. “This is a building that Historic Columbia has had on an eligible landmark list for 10 years. ... We’re excited about the prospects.”

But the landmark status isn’t the only thing that will help save the building.

Delk noted that if the building renovation meets historic standards, then the developer would be eligible to recoup about 30 percent of his or her costs through state and federal historic tax credits.

Also, the building could be one of the first to use the state’s new Abandoned Buildings Revitalization Act incentive, which provides up to a $500,000 tax credit.

Delk said another advantage is developers could save on their future properties taxes, too, because Columbia uses the property tax break for historic renovations known as “the Bailey bill.”

While the bill was written by former Rep. Jimmy Bailey of Charleston, the city of Charleston has not adopted it —fearing its popularity could harm the city’s revenue stream.

Delk said the city won’t necessarily sell the Palmetto Compress site to whomever offers the most money but will consider the proposed uses and the developer’s financing and previous track record.

“The location is so good, right next to the university, right next to the Vista district, literally next door to the Colonial Life Arena, within a few blocks from the river,” he said. “This could easily be a $30 million project.”

Waites said the building’s successful renovation and reuse would give Columbia yet another large-scale preservation success, along with the State Museum (inside an old textile mill); the event and arts center at 701 Whaley; and a Publix grocery store on what once was a Confederate printing press and later a cotton warehouse.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.