John A. Carlos II (copy)

A CR Jackson Contractors truck goes down a service road on the site of a proposed REI Co-op store in Columbia's BullStreet District on May 7, 2019. File/John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — A project to build about 260 apartments has been proposed to add to the growth at the BullStreet District, the former Department of Mental Health site that is being redeveloped near Columbia's downtown. 

Key to the project: Getting approval for a tax break from the city and Richland County.

On Tuesday the Richland County Council gave preliminary approval to allowing the apartment project to use its latest tax break but not without concern from some members.

The tax break, set up earlier this year in a joint city-county effort, gives developers up to a 50 percent property tax break for up to 10 years on large commercial and residential projects that exceed $30 million in exchange for building public infrastructure such as a garage or walkway as part of their project. 

The apartments, a project of Proffitt Dixon Partners of Charlotte, would feature a four-level garage offering 345 parking spaces, including 74 that would be available to the public. The total value of the project is $50 million, according to the tax break application.

The construction could start in early 2020, according to Bob McAlister of McAlister Communications, which has represented Hughes Development on BullStreet announcements. 

At least two members of Richland County Council expressed some initial skepticism during Tuesday night's meeting, saying that they wonder why incentives flow to certain more densely populated parts of the county while the unincorporated areas they represent get left behind. 

Joyce Dickerson, whose council district includes many unincorporated areas of Richland County, said she is tiring of so many tax breaks for projects in more urban areas.

"How would that benefit Richland County?" Dickerson said. "I mean the county, not the city."

Council member Yvonne McBride also questioned the tax break, which will require two more readings and city action to move into place.

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"I think we need to take a real hardcore look at the projects we are funding," McBride said.

Richland County economic development director Jeff Ruble promised to address their questions about the project going forward, and the tax break received its first vote of approval.

If completed, the apartment development would add a spot for young professionals to land on Bull Street, the 181-acre site that is being redeveloped adjacent to Columbia's downtown center.

Recently, the redeveloper of the historic Babcock building announced their plans to offer apartments there, with the first two phases expected to be online in the second half of 2021. When fully built out, Babcock will feature more than 200 apartments.

The district already has the first stage of what will be 28 townhomes open and occupied, and a senior living community is expected to open within weeks. The complex also will feature a freestanding Starbucks coming in 2021 next to the REI sporting goods co-op, which should open next year. 

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