Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Following a master plan

Opinion by Paul Blake

Developers Ron Swinson and Stan Harpe have finally found a master plan that works. The City of Columbia settled a lawsuit with the developers of Five Points South for $350,000. The developers sued after the city lowered the amount they were willing to pay for a parking garage, which would have been part of a six-story retail and condo project.

H.R. Developers, owned by Harpe and Swinson, has been in high level talks with city officials since at least 2007, with the idea to build a multi-level shopping, parking, and residential structure in Five Points at the corner of Blossom and Saluda Streets. The City of Columbia, under its original plan, would have put up $1 million to finance a public parking garage in the structure. The Five Points Association (FPA) petitioned the city to create a new zoning classification specifically for large scale, mixed residential/retail development –the project’s MX-1 zoning category didn’t exist until the FPA began pushing for it in 2005 (it was approved by unanimous vote in 2008). The city eventually backed out of the public parking portion and neighborhood associations balked at the height of the structure. After sinking a few years and millions of dollars into the project, Swinson and Harpe decided to build a one story structure that now houses a Walgreens.

H.R. Developers bought the former Kenny’s Auto site on April 10, 2007. Nearly two years to the day later, it appeared they intentionally delayed a zoning hearing to await the ousting of an opposing zoning official. After investing all that time, money and effort, Stan Harpe happened to be out of town on April 14, 2009 when it came time for an important zoning board vote.

The week following the April 14 Board of Zoning Appeals deferral, representatives of the FPA quietly met with H.R. Developers. (Strangely, the developers were in town and cleared their schedules for that meeting.) The association then conducted a board member vote endorsing the Walgreen’s project, despite the structure being 40 percent larger than the guidelines they set forth in the original master plan, despite an unassuming Rite Aid a few blocks from the proposed site and despite the fact that an oversized corporate drug mart is anything but “local,” “funky,” or “eclectic.” Former FPA president and Future Five development mastermind, Dennis Hiltner, and former city councilwoman, Anne Sinclair, also attended the closed-door board meeting.

Why did H.R. wait until the week of April 20 – the week after their April 14 zoning hearing – to schedule a summit meeting and vote with the FPA to shore up support? Wouldn’t they have wanted that cheerleading section at the original hearing? Unless they had planned to miss the April 14, 2009 meeting all along.

In lieu of the original master plan, perhaps their Plan B was to sue and settle with the City of Columbia at a later date. Oddly, H.R. didn’t have a written contract with the city, so there was no reason for the city to settle this case.

The developers were upset with the public outcry over the project and it seemed they didn’t care what took its place.  There was pure arrogance from the Five Points Association with an attitude of, “Since you complained, now you get a Walgreens!”

Meanwhile, they didn’t even warn Walgreens that their new store would be ankle deep in water every time it rained.

Considering the state of the condo market and the various new condo projects in Columbia that remain empty, the concerned citizens did them a favor by blocking the project. But it looks as though Harpe and company had a plan to make their money.

As I wrote in 2009, “It’s a shame that zoning officials can’t be elected. Instead, they’re hand-picked by development friendly city council members –one of whom, Daniel Rickenmann, received campaign donations from a fundraising party Stan Harpe’s wife hosted in his honor and whose real estate dealings with H.R. Developers and the former owner of Kenny’s Auto raised eyebrows during the last municipal election.”

Once again Columbia, such observations fall on deaf ears and the same modus operandi will continue.

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