COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina Lunatic Asylum admitted its first patient in 1828. Ever since, its impressive brick wards surrounded by nearly 200 acres of leafy lawns and gardens served as landmarks in Columbia, the state’s capital.
Almost 200 years later, and three decades after the last patient was discharged, the old brick buildings and expansive open space are being steadily converted into one of the largest downtown mixed-use real estate projects in the nation, a 181-acre development known as the BullStreet District.
A mile from Columbia’s central business district, and more than twice as large, the BullStreet project reflects the latest trends in designing and building compact urban neighborhoods. The district features an array of modern office, residential, retail, entertainment and recreational spaces.
The history of the hospital, which spans the Civil War and two world wars, and its size and location near the heart of Columbia, also drew political friction about its uses and expense to taxpayers. But public conversation began to subside as each new feature was added to the district.
More than $100 million has been invested to construct an inviting downtown destination that Columbia has never had before. BullStreet is steadily emerging as the civic space that Stephen K. Benjamin, the city’s three-term mayor, envisioned when he persuaded the City Council in 2013 to begin collaborating on the project with the Hughes Development Corporation, a developer based 100 miles away in Greenville.
“I knew what was involved and that it would be a long and arduous public discussion,” Mr. Benjamin said. “Everybody had an opinion about historic renovation. Everybody had an opinion about how much the city should invest.
Despite opposition, Mr. Benjamin said he stuck to his vision. “I saw the opportunity to add 181 acres to the tax roll, and to build a place people wanted to be,” he said. “I saw it as a project meant to be a long-term fit for the people of Columbia.”
Hughes, which gained a national reputation for its work to transform Greenville’s seedy downtown into a showcase of urban revival, was eager to undertake the redevelopment project. BullStreet is one of a number of mixed-use projects around the country, transforming architecturally distinguished 19th century psychiatric institutions into new neighborhoods.
The Victorian Italianate buildings of the former Traverse City State Hospital in northern Michigan were redeveloped in 2010 into a wooded campus called the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, a mix of residences, shops, restaurants, offices and markets. In 2005, the State of Massachusetts sold the 93-acre Foxborough State Hospital for development as a mixed-use district called Chestnut Green.
In 2010, Hughes agreed to pay $18 million for the state-owned hospital buildings and the grounds along one of Columbia’s busiest streets. It negotiated with the city to renovate the historic structures, donated 9 acres at the district’s center for a new minor-league baseball stadium and gained rights to develop 3.3 million square feet of commercial space and more than 3,500 residences.
In turn, the city agreed to share the project’s cost, offering $31 million to help build the $37 million baseball stadium, Segra Park, which opened in 2016 as the home of the Columbia Fireflies, a Class A affiliate of the New York Mets. Columbia, a city of more than 130,000 people, also promised to invest $30 million in roads and other infrastructure, and an estimated $28 million for 1,600 parking spaces in two parking decks.
Construction started in 2015. Along with the stadium, the district has added a $20 million, 108,000-square-foot office building, a $30 million, 196-unit apartment building for seniors, and 28 townhouses. Hughes renovated two smaller structures — a historic bakery building and the 81-year-old hospital morgue — for a high-tech communal work space, a restaurant and offices. Downtown Church, a local Presbyterian congregation, spent $2.5 million to renovate the hospital’s steam energy plant into an 8,000-square-foot venue for events and worship.
Over the next year REI, the recreational equipment retailer, will open a 20,000-square-foot store in the district’s new shopping area along Bull Street. Hughes also anticipates that Clachan Properties, a developer based in Richmond, will gain approval for a $42 million renovation of the 200,000-square-foot Babcock Building that will become 209 apartments. The building’s red cupola and Italianate entrance, constructed in the mid-1880s, are the project’s architectural focal points.
“We have the luxury of beautiful historic structures that give the project a ton of character,” said Robert Hughes III, president of Hughes Development. “It has the charm of the older districts in the Southeast.”
Not everyone has been enthusiastic about the project. The city’s big investment attracted criticism from anti-tax activists. City lawyers cautioned about long-term debt. Hughes and the mayor insisted the district would take a generation to complete, but the pace of construction has been slower than some residents had expected.
When a plan to build a 400,000-square-foot shopping area failed to attract enough retailers in 2017, criticism grew, especially from some city leaders.
“Too often for our own good, Columbians have been sold grandiose visions by both local and outside groups, developers and alliances which have traditionally left the taxpayers holding the bag,” Daniel Rickenmann, a City Council member, wrote in an opinion article in January in The State, Columbia’s daily newspaper.
But work on the development project chugged along. In February, the city said the ballpark attracted more than 300,000 visitors last year and generated more than $450,000 in tax revenue. In March, REI made its announcement.
Former critics have become supporters, including Tameika Isaac Devine, a lawyer and City Council member who voted against the project six years ago. “Honestly, it was going too fast at that point,” Ms. Devine said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of time for the public’s concerns to be addressed.”
But progress on the development, including the opening of the stadium, helped change her opinion. “My family has season tickets for baseball,” she said. “I’m glad I was on the losing end of that vote.”
In addition to maintaining the history of the district, Hughes also sought to modernize some aspects like infrastructure development. The entire parcel is wired for high-speed internet connections. Hughes traded a large plot of land and transmission right-of-way easements to Dominion Energy, which wanted to build a new electrical substation. In return, Dominion agreed to bury the district’s electric power lines.
Hughes is also constructing a $4 million, 20-acre park, which features restoring the natural flow of Smith Branch, a tributary of the Broad River that runs through the site. Before Hughes took ownership of the development, the creek flowed for 1,000 feet above ground, and then disappeared for 1,600 more feet into two mammoth underground concrete pipes the state installed in the 1950s to control flooding.
Joshua Robinson, an engineer and hydrologist from Charleston, designed a restoration plan to clear the first 1,000 feet of debris and rebuild the existing channel. He then constructed 1,600 feet of new channel on the surface, freeing the creek from the pipes. Mr. Robinson did not demolish the old pipes, though. He left them in place and built a concrete weir, a compact dam structure that during storms diverts high flows into the pipes and protects the park from floods.
“The stream is the spine of the park,” said Mr. Robinson, who expects to open the park later this year. Upstream will be the most naturalistic part of the park with native vegetation. Downstream will have manicured fields and walking paths, a two-acre pond, pools and shade trees. “It will be a diverse experience, feel natural, and all in human scale,” he said.