COLUMBIA —For generations, the sprawling state hospital site at Bull Street and Elmwood Avenue tended South Carolina’s mentally ill behind brick walls, largely out of public view.

As standards changed and institutionalizing this population fell from favor, the 170-acre campus slowly emptied out, leaving scores of buildings, some grand, many modest, standing vacant.

What remained was the city’s biggest redevelopment opportunity in a generation, one similar to the opportunity created when the federal government shuttered the Charleston Naval Base.

Many feel that if it is handled right, Bull Street could become a vibrant new neighborhood, possibly with a new minor league baseball stadium, about one mile north of the Statehouse. Handled wrong, it could turn into something soulless — or could just continue to crumble.

The city has firmed up a deal with Greenville developer Bob Hughes, though the deal was not without controversy, particularly over the city’s commitments and whether it was asking enough of Hughes regarding preserving the property’s unique history.

Michael Bedenbaugh of the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation is among the many people watching to see what happens next.

“It’s been very quiet since the city approved his plan,” he said. “Here’s the big picture here: It’s done.”

Lydia Mattice Brandt, a University of South Carolina art professor, had 13 students document the sprawling site as a class project last year.

They examined the scores of buildings to learn about their intended use, how that use changed over time and what condition they’re in now.

“A lot of these buildings have already had many lives. Few of the buildings were doing at the end of their lives what they were constructed to do at the beginning,” she said. “I’m not denying some are in awful, awful shape. Some of the roofs aren’t doing any favors.”

The buildings were designed to serve as a self-sustaining community to meet all the needs of the patients, and they range from the institutional grandeur of Babcock Hall —which some entering the city on Elmwood have mistaken for the Statehouse — to bungalows and utility sheds.

“This was a community, and it was really important,” she said, adding the complex included a farm, kitchen, laundry, chapel and other buildings.

“It’s definitely the most complicated preservation battle I’ve ever encountered,” she said. “When I came to Columbia from Charlottesville, Va., two years ago, it was clear to me that this was the biggest potential preservation battle in a generation in Columbia and one of the biggest redevelopment opportunities in the state.”

In 2010, Hughes, who made a name redeveloping Greenville’s downtown, reached a deal to buy 165 acres from the Department of Mental Health. Only the original building, which was designed by Charleston architect Robert Mills, was not included because the state still is using it.

Since then, Hughes has received approval for his development plans from City Council, which also has approved an agreement to help with $70 million in taxpayer-funded improvements on the site.

That part of the deal recently caused controversy when a city attorney’s memo surfaced, cautioning City Council that the city has not identified where that money would come from.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin has been the deal’s strongest supporter, calling it “a game changer” for the city, one that eventually could create 11,000 jobs and $600 million in income.

“The city’s role here is providing infrastructure on public property — property that will be deeded to the city,” he said.

Benjamin said he speaks to Hughes regularly and expects to see work begin soon.

“I suspect he may be moving dirt this quarter. If not, it will be the first quarter of next year,” Benjamin said.

Beyond the city’s financial exposure, those familiar with the city’s deal with Hughes have concerns about what will happen next.

Robin Waites of the Historic Columbia Foundation said the city has given away much of its leverage to protect the historic core of the site, both from demolitions and from incompatible development that would block historic views, such as the sight of the Babcock Building from Elmwood Avenue.

She said the site’s value is partly as a chronicle of the evolution of mental health care and architectural history in Columbia.

“Being able to evoke that unique sense of place has to do with retaining the historic part of the campus,” she said, adding that the historic core includes only about 40 of the site’s 165 acres.

The historic core includes the Babcock building and its nearby support buildings, including a few dining halls, a bakery and laundry.

“That really speaks to what this campus was – which is a city within a city,” she said. “It’s not just the massive, most prominent buildings on the site but some of the smaller support structures are critical in understanding how the property operated. So the retention of those is really important.”

Benjamin said that while the city recognizes the importance of preservation, it’s also mindful of “the sacrosanct nature of private property.”

“We’ve made it clear what we expect to see on Bull Street, and I fully expect to see that with the buildings we have protected, we’ll be excited about what happens there,” he said. “And there are several more that will see adaptive reuse even without government intervention.”

Both Waites and Bedenbaugh said they will work with Hughes to assist him with technical advice, such as getting historic tax credits, that will make retaining those buildings more feasible.

Hughes, who did not return a message requesting comment for this story, addressed some criticisms in an interview this summer.

“We’ve got tree preservation stuff, we’re saving 74 percent of the square feet of all the historic buildings that anyone ever mentioned. We’re giving ourselves an opportunity to save the other 26 percent,” he told Columbia TV station WXLT.

“The great thing about the way this system works is if I fail to create a project that rewards people and they don’t want to live there, I don’t get paid for my efforts,” he added.

Brandt said only a few buildings were cherry picked for protection — and those were done not so much on documentation. She singled out the Chapel of Good Hope — one building to be saved — as an example.

“I’m glad he’s saying that any building will be retained,” she said, “but historically, that chapel is the most recent of all the buildings.”

One bright spot is that the agreement does call for archaeological work to be done near a rear wall, site of a Civil War prison for Union soldiers, a site known as Camp Asylum.

Larry Griffin, who lives in the city’s nearby Cottontown Historic District one block away, said he has seen no real commitment about how the property is going to be redeveloped. He is concerned mostly about traffic congestion, particularly if a minor league baseball stadium is built there.

“I’m a lot concerned about Bull Street traffic,” he said. “Good effects for one neighborhood is not necessarily good for another.”

He said he also is concerned about the development’s housing mix, such as whether it would contain government-subsidized apartments.

“I realize I’m a person who doesn’t like a whole lot of change. I’m 68,” he said.

Brandt said the plan is “pretty sketchy”’ and envisions new areas of focus that might not be needed.

“One of the things about the New Urbanist movement is that it invents place,” she said. “Here we have a very distinct place that’s really special and totally unique to the site and the city and the state. Why not take advantage of that?”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.