Columbia Council gives first nod to $20 million for more BullStreet parking

The city of Columbia has given initial approval to make way for the construction of up to two more parking garages at the BullStreet District and is set to once again borrow from a retiree benefits fund to make it happen.

Columbia City Council on Tuesday unanimously passed a first vote on an ordinance that authorizes $20.4 million dollars for about 750 more parking garage spaces at the site. City special projects administrator Gregory Tucker said those spaces could come in one garage or be split into two garages.

A second vote is required to finalize the garage financing ordinance.

Under its agreement with Greenville’s Hughes Development to overhaul the 181-acre BullStreet site, the city is contractually obligated to construct a total of 1,600 parking spaces for the project.

There are already two garages that are currently under construction at BullStreet, which account for about 850 spaces. One of those has about 230 spaces in conjunction with the to-be-constructed WestLawn building, a multi-use, five-story structure that will have office space and retail. The other will have about 620 spaces and is being built just east of the REI outdoor gear store that opened at the site last year.

Tucker said the exact location of the additional garages the city council approved on Tuesday has yet to be determined.

To pay for the next phase of garages, the city is set borrow $20.4 million from a retiree fund known as the “other post-employment benefits” fund. The city would later pay that back, with 1.5% interest, via parking revenues and other funds over time.

“I think it’s a win-win for the city and for the benefit pool that is used for post-employment benefits,” at-large City Councilman Howard Duvall said. “This will earn more money for the post-employment benefit pool than they are earning currently, and it will give us complete control over the financing of that facility.”

It’s the same financing set-up the council used to fund the first two BullStreet garages that are currently under construction. The council approved $16.5 million toward the first two garages back in November.

The city is contractually committed to nearly $100 million in public investment at the BullStreet site. That includes $29 million toward the construction of Segra Park baseball stadium, $31 million in infrastructure upgrades and about $36 million for all of the eventual parking garage facilities.

Following the Tuesday approval of the the measure for the next garages, third-term Mayor Steve Benjamin said he “continues to be excited about BullStreet progress.” Benjamin has been a key proponent of the massive effort to revitalize the former State Mental Hospital site.

The pace of the BullStreet project has been methodical in the last five years, but has picked up steam. There is an REI outdoor store on the property now, as well as a Starbucks.

There are tenants in the Merrill Gardens senior living facility at the site, and in the townhomes behind the Babcock Building. Dirt is moving to make way for the WestLawn office building. And the Columbia Fireflies, tenants of the Segra Park, just inked a new 10-year deal to be an affiliate of the Kansas City Royals and are in the midst of the 2021 season after the 2020 campaign got canceled because of COVID-19.

The city will cut the ribbon on a public park there this year, which will be named for late architect and community leader Page Ellington.

And, despite a fire that ravaged it last year, work is plowing forward on a $55 million project to turn the iconic Babcock Building into more than 200 apartments.