Developer buys Mendel Rivers

L. Mendel Rivers Federal Building on Meeting Street.

The L. Mendel Rivers Federal Building, government property since it was completed more than 40 years ago, is now in private hands.

Atlanta-based real estate developer and part-time Charleston resident John K. Dewberry, who submitted the high bid for the vacant office property in an online auction last year, closed the $15 million deal last week. The seller was the General Services Administration.

Dewberry spokesman Dan Beeson said he could confirm only that the sale was finalized. Whether the new owner has any firm plans for the seven-story Meeting Street building and adjacent land is unclear. Only Dewberry could address that point, and he was not available for comment, Beeson said.

Whatever is proposed, it almost certainly will stir up controversy.

The fate and the aesthetic value of the boxy former government office building has stoked a growing debate that includes the city of Charleston, nearby residents, architects and preservationists.

Some argue that the building, which is riddled with asbestos and has extensive water damage, is ugly and should be demolished so that the property can be redeveloped from the ground up.

Others are pushing to save and reuse the seven-story structure, partly because it is one of the city's few examples of late-20th-century modern design. From a real estate standpoint, the site is considered valuable.

The lot, which measures nearly 2.2 acres, is across from Marion Square in a section of the city that has become a hotbed of hotel and retail development over the past decade.

Dewberry, founder of Atlanta's Dewberry Capital Corp. and a former Georgia Tech quarterback, has been in the commercial real estate development business since 1989.

His business has brought him to Charleston in the past. About 15 years ago, his firm developed Dorchester Square retail center in North Charleston. It later bought Cross Creek Square at Folly Road and Maybank Highway on James Island and rebuilt the Bi-Lo shopping complex at Ben Sawyer Boulevard and Rifle Range Road in Mount Pleasant.

We're starting a weekly newsletter about the business stories that are shaping Charleston and South Carolina. Get ahead with us - it's free.


Dewberry also renovated a historic home he has owned since 2003 on lower Meeting Street.

The newest property in his portfolio was completed in 1965 and named for U.S. Rep. L. Mendel Rivers, a powerful South Carolina congressman who died in 1970.

It was vacated in 1999, after the interior was damaged by Hurricane Floyd.

The city had harbored ambitions of owning the Mendel Rivers building itself so it could control the redevelopment of the prime property. Mayor Joe Riley has said he envisioned a residential mixed-use project on the site that might also include a small hotel, offices, retail space and parking.

The city once proposed a real estate swap with the federal government, which turned down that idea last spring. Charleston came back with an all-cash bid of $11.5 million in August. But the GSA felt the property was worth more, so it put it for sale on the open market using an online auction.

Dewberry's $15 million offer was the highest of three that were submitted. After he was identified as the top bidder in November, his office issued a statement saying "John expects to join the historic preservation community in transforming the Mendel Rivers building into an enduring asset all can be proud of."