Most everyone agrees the Charleston Town Center mall parking garages need about $5 million in renovations. But it’s hard to fix them when no one will admit to owning them.
“It is a conundrum,” admits Charleston Urban Renewal Authority Executive Director Ron Butlin.
Butlin said his agency owns the ground underneath the buildings, but not the buildings themselves. It’s reminiscent of owning mineral rights underground but not the land on top.
“It’s awkward,” he said. “People want a sensational headline. We do have some deferred maintenance.”
Does CURA have the money to fix them?
“We don’t own them,” Butlin said.
And, to steal from Kurt Vonnegut, so it goes.
Perhaps The Hull Group, the mall’s Augusta, Georgia-based owner, is willing to bring the buildings up to snuff. A case could be made that it would be the chief entity to benefit. It is hardly legally bound to do so, however. Three phone calls to Hull’s John Mulherin went unreturned this week.
Kanawha County Assessor tax maps show CURA as owner of the parking buildings. Butlin said the owner is the Charleston Building Commission, which is different from the Building Commission that issues permits and property citations.
Butlin said the Charleston Building Commission is an entity established in the 1980s, to establish tax exempt bonding. Investors bought bonds, the proceeds of which went to construct the parking buildings. They did so with the promise of receiving regular, untaxed payments.
The problem: with the demise of the mall, customers did not park in the buildings with enough regularity to pay the bondholders. Both the mall and the buildings went separately bankrupt. Bondholders are owed a cumulative $12 million. CURA has previously stated that “bondholders have temporarily chosen to not exercise their rights to foreclose” on the parking structures.
“Yes, the bonds are currently in default,” Butlin said.
Butlin said most of the neglected maintenance occurred in Building C, on Washington Street, under former owners Forest City Enterprises. That building doubles as parking for the Embassy Suites hotel, with a link to mall parking. The other two buildings are on Quarrier and Lee streets.
Howard Swint is a well-known commercial property broker and an occasional Gazette-Mail contributing columnist.
“Who wants to put money into someone else’s buildings?” asked Swint. “Bondholders are going to say ‘pay us the money we’re owed first’ before you put any money into those parking garages. They’re going to want to be first in line.”
Mackenzie Spencer, communications assistant for Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin, directed inquiries to Shawn George, of the law firm George and Lorenson. George, who represents garage bondholders, was unavailable for comment. Goodwin declined to issue a statement.
In other mall-related news, it’s possible a special legislative session could be held this fall to pave the way for a Mardi Gras satellite casino in the former Macy’s building.
Sen. Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, proposed 2019 legislation enabling Delaware North — the company which owns both Wheeling Island and Cross Lanes’ Mardi Gras casinos — to set up a second shop in The Highlands shopping center outside of Wheeling. That measure failed to get out of committee, but only fell short of House Finance by an 8-7 vote. Nelson was a delegate at the time.
Nelson said he would again support a satellite casino for Mardi Gras, particularly one in the Macy’s space, which is owned by CURA. It solicited requests for proposal in a legal ad last week, for both a listing agent to sell the property and solicitations to purchase the property outright. Butlin said on Tuesday he had no offers from anyone. Delaware North officials could not be reached for comment.
Two special sessions will likely be needed, one on redistricting of congressional delegations and one on divvying up proceeds from the American Rescue Plan. The latter is a federal initiative to help states recover from COVID-19. Legislation enabling a casino at Macy’s could be taken up during the rescue plan session if lawmakers don’t want to mix vote allocation and money.