For years, the City of Columbia has talked about a revitalization of battered Finlay Park, the 18-acre downtown expanse that was once known as the “crown jewel” of the city’s parks system, but has long since suffered from structural disrepair and indifference from the public.
It now appears that, if the park is revamped, the adjacent 9.5-acre U.S. post office property at 1601 Assembly St. will likely be a part of the mix.
On May 7, Columbia City Council passed a resolution to enter into a purchase agreement for the post office property. The vote to make the purchase was 6-1, with Councilman Moe Baddourah voting against it.
The city would buy the property for $3.85 million. Council also approved issuing a special obligation bond to make the purchase. According to city paperwork, the property is currently owned by the Honolulu Rapid Transit Company, a Maryland-based limited liability corporation.
The post office building on Assembly was built in 1966. According to at-large Councilman Howard Duvall, if the purchase is completed, the city would have to honor the U.S. Postal Service’s lease of the building for another 17 years.
It remains to be seen exactly how the post office property would fit with the city’s still-gestating plans for Finlay Park redevelopment. Back in December, Council unanimously voted to enter into a collaboration with Charlotte’s sprawling U.S. National Whitewater Center to plan an attraction and revitalization of the park, one that could include a hotel, residences and an outdoor attraction.
“We will use the ownership of that property to negotiate with the U.S. Postal Service to see if we can reach an accommodation with them for them to use less of the space,” Duvall says. “They are using less of the space now [than they once did]. But they are still paying for the whole building. Maybe we can make some accommodations with the U.S. Postal Service to let the public have better use of that property.
“It certainly is a key piece of the Finlay Park puzzle. To get that 9.5 acres under control of the city gives us a lot of options.”
Duvall says talks with the U.S. National Whitewater Center are still ongoing.
“It’s brewing,” Duvall says. “We are having serious discussions with Whitewater. If we can’t make an acceptable deal with them, certainly we will be looking for other partners.”
Free Times reached out to Baddourah as to why he voted “no” on the post office purchase. He says there are too many unknowns for his liking.
“As of now, we would be landlords for the Postal Service,” the District 3 Councilman says. “We can’t really do anything with the property until we get an agreement with them that allows us to do something with the property. The way the property is sitting right now, there are just too many factors. … I just didn’t feel that it was a very good use of taxpayers’ money.”
There are others who also are keeping a close eye on the city’s efforts to buy the post office property. Historic Columbia Executive Director Robin Waites says she would love to see the building preserved.
“I would be happy for the city to buy it as long as they retain it and reuse it,” Waites tells Free Times. “It is potentially the finest example of a mid-century modern [architectural style] building that we have in Columbia. It was designed by Lyles, Bissett, Carlisle & Wolff, who were the preeminent mid-century architects in Columbia. … That’s an architecture firm that has really made an impact in Columbia, and that’s a really fine example of their work.
“Potentially, for Columbia, I think when people are looking at mid-century modern, that’s one they would point to as an excellent example, nationally, as well as local.”
Waites says Historic Columbia was working on a nomination to place the Assembly Street post office on the National Register of Historic Places when it learned that the property was on the market.
“I think it has the potential to be reused as something really cool, and perhaps spur some development,” Waites says. She says Historic Columbia would welcome the opportunity to be a part of the city’s discussions about how the post office property would be used in the future.