Bull Street Developer Led Greenville Revival
Bob Hughes was not afraid of an old JCPenny department store with 42 separate owners. He was not afraid of an abandoned, asbestos-infested courthouse governed by strict preservation requirements. And, when the Greenville City Council seized a home and kicked its owner out to develop a park, Hughes wasn’t afraid to develop the land next to it.
So why, then, would it come as a surprise that Hughes, president of Greenville’s Hughes Development Corp., would spend $15 million on 165 acres of lawsuit-plagued, historically protected, politically charged property not far from the heart of Columbia’s downtown?“It sounds so Bob Hughes,” said Greenville Mayor Knox White.
The Columbia property, bordered by Colonial Drive and Bull, Calhoun and Harden streets, is the original home of the State Lunatic Asylum. The pending sale of Bull Street is one of the most anticipated and significant land deals in city history. The site is littered with the bones of dead Union soldiers from the Civil War. And it is home of the Babcock Building, one of the city’s most architecturally significant and historically important buildings.
Bull Street, as the property has become known, also has attracted the attention and the allegiance of the city’s preservation-minded residents, who see it as an important symbol of the city’s past – the development of which will guide the city’s future. Eight of those residents are on the City Council-appointed Bull Street Property Advisory Committee, and the agenda for their first meeting of 2011 was short:
Who is Bob Hughes?
That’s a difficult question to answer. Hughes rarely speaks to reporters, and his company website is password-protected, containing a phone number, a P.O. box, an email address and three pictures with no captions. Friends and colleagues describe Hughes as a creative, committed developer who is willing to take the time to do things right. Critics paint him as the son of a favored family whose success has been helped along by an accommodating Greenville City Council.
But in examining Hughes’ career, one thing is clear: He loves the tough projects. And what could be tougher than Bull Street?
REUSING OLD BUILDINGS
Hughes is named after his father, the influential real estate developer Robert E. “Red” Hughes, who died in 2003. Red Hughes’ real estate company built the first Kmarts in the Southeast and developed Greenville’s posh Chanticleer golf course and subdivision.
Hughes keeps a book of his father’s sayings, including things such as “the paths of the pioneers are strewn with bones,” according to an article in The Greenville News about Red Hughes’ death.
“His dad was a significant influence on him,” said Hayne Hipp, former CEO of the Greenville-based Liberty Corp. (now part of Raycom Media) and a longtime friend of Bob Hughes. “He never practiced law. I think he went primarily for the discipline and structure you get with a law degree. He didn’t need an MBA. He already knew how to run the numbers in his head.”
Hughes’ projects are all over Greenville’s downtown. He took an old JCPenny department store with 42 separate owners and persuaded them all to let him turn the building into an office. It’s now home to Windstream communications and serves as a downtown office anchor.
“I know a number of times, I think, Bob was about ready to throw up his hands,” said Nancy Whitworth, Greenville’s economic development director. “He had the patience a lot of developers don’t have to hang in with it that long. I think that’s a good takeaway for the Bull Street project.”
Bull Street is also home to several historic buildings, the most prominent being the Babcock Building, with its signature red dome rising above the tree line to greet motorists as they enter the city from I-126.
“I won’t say that he puts me at ease, but I will say I am comfortable that he knows the interests of the community in seeing those historic structures and landscaped pieces preserved,” said Columbia City Councilwoman Belinda Gergel, a past president of the Historic Columbia Foundation.
Hughes has had success finding new uses for old buildings. The old Greenville County Courthouse on Main Street, completed in 1921, was abandoned by the county’s family court because of asbestos issues and other problems. Greenville officials sold the courthouse, next to the Poinsett Hotel, to Hughes and included strict restrictions on what he could do with it.
Hughes turned it into a home for an architectural design firm, with a day spa in the basement. Hughes’ offices are on the top floor, just above the Upstate office of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.
WORKING WITH OTHERS
Because Bull Street is so large, it will require Hughes to work with several developers to develop the property, something Hughes did with perhaps his most well-known project: the $67.4 million RiverPlace on the west end of Greenville’s Main Street.
But RiverPlace – apartments, retail space and artist studios at Reedy River Falls – is perhaps Hughes’ most controversial development.
Three property owners, including a homeowner, refused to sell their land in front of RiverPlace development to the city. Greenville City Council condemned the property to connect the newly built and wildly popular Falls Park with a park in front of RiverPlace.
The move was widely criticized as the city doing a favor for Hughes, with an attorney for the three property owners presenting evidence in court that city officials worked with Hughes on the condemnation.
A jury eventually awarded the property owners $5.4 million, a price Whitworth said was nearly three times an appraiser’s estimate of the property value.
“No doubt some people thought or said favoritism or whatever,” said Earle Furman, a Greenville commercial real estate agent. “People assume that he is given a preferential treatment by the city, which is really, to my knowledge of that, is not the case at all. The city’s zoning, codes, permissions, he has just as much problems with getting through that as everyone else does.”
Hughes’ first project in Columbia was that other massive, lawsuit-plagued, politically charged property – Green Diamond.
The 3,100 acre property along the Congaree River was pitched as a “city within a city.” But the $1 billion project was doomed by federal flood maps that severely limited development.
Hughes was part of a team, Columbia Venture, that tried to rescue the development, but he didn’t get off to a good start with the Columbia City Council.
After Columbia passed on the project, Hughes Cayce leaders to annex the Green Diamond property instead. Columbia City Council responded by refusing to provide water to the development, a move that caught Hughes by surprise.
But Hughes and Columbia Venture eventually agreed to drop their development plan, and the project was never completed.
Hughes declined to be interviewed for this story because, he said, the sale of Bull Street must first be approved by the courts since the parcel is owned by a trust dedicated to the treatment of the state’s mentally ill.
But earlier this week, he welcomed a contingent of Columbia City Council members and staff members to Greenville for a tour of his previous projects. Hughes did not lead the tour, but he spoke briefly before it began.
“My mother always said not to speak to anybody with sunglasses (on),” he said, pulling his off.
“I’m really flattered y’all are here,” he said. “I hope circumstances work out so that I get to be working with you guys on a great project in Columbia. Please call me if there is anything I can answer or if anybody’s got some questions. But as far as working specifically on this project, I’ve got to wait until I know we’ve got a deal.
“And if we get a deal, it’d be great.”
FROM THE BOB HUGHES PLAYBOOK
What developer Bob Hughes learned in Greenville that could serve him well in Columbia
This office building was once a JCPenney Department store. Built over several parcels, as many old buildings were, it had 42 separate owners. Hughes had to get every owner to agree for him to redevelop the property, which now serves as a downtown office anchor. That kind of patience will come in handy with Bull Street, which as the subject of intense public interest is sure to be bogged down in the city’s planning and zoning process.
This courthouse, completed in 1921, was abandoned along Main Street. The city of Greenville sold it to Hughes, on the condition that he restore the interior and keep the main courtrooms intact. That made it difficult to find tenants for such a large space, but Hughes turned it into a day spa and an architectural design firm. He’ll have to find similar workarounds for several buildings on Bull Street, most notably the Babcock Building, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Greenville’s massive RiverPlace development has become the centerpiece of its revitalized downtown. Hughes was the master developer, overseeing a team of developers who developed different parcels while ensuring the developments complimented each other. That’s how Columbia City Council wants Hughes to develop Bull Street. And it’s how Andres Duany, a Miami architect, planned for Bull Street to be developed in a 2005 master plan paid for by state and local taxpayers and approved by the community.
A group of small technology companies wanted an office building, and Bob Hughes turned an old electronics warehouse into a hip place to do business. It’s designed as a sort of business incubator, with office space for larger companies on the main floor, and desks scattered throughout the bottom floor available for rent by the day, week or month. Columbia leaders hope Hughes will bring that kind of creativity to Bull Street.