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New Dixie Skirmish in Paint Color Wars

Thursday, February 14, 2013

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Valentine’s Day arrives with no love lost among architects, developers and city design officials wrangling over a proposed paint scheme for a luxe new student housing project in the heart of Columbia, SC.

At stake is the aesthetic fate of a high-profile high rise in the capital city’s center on Main Street.

Backers say their colorful façade plan—alternating bands of dark gray and off-white, accented with panels of green, yellow and blue and other colors—will draw youthful tenants to a tired building, protect the precast concrete exterior from moisture incursion, and distinguish the structure from a neighboring hotel.

Palmetto Center Palmetto Center rendering (left); Antunovich Associates (right)

Vacant since 2009, Columbia's Palmetto Center (left) is in for a new look (right) as student housing. Color critics abound.

Critics deride the look as “polka dots,” accuse the developer of “tarting up” an icon, and declare that the paint won’t stick anyway.

A Dorm with Drama

The debate involves the next chapter in the life of the 30-year-old Palmetto Center, a 21-story office building that Chicago-based student housing developer Core Campus LLC bought in December. The building was vacated in 2009 by utility concern SCANA Corp.

Core Campus plans to convert the building into housing for 251 furnished units with 851 beds. The new facility, to be named The Hub on Main Street, would also feature a rooftop "amenity terrace" on an adjoining parking garage with a swimming pool, hot tub and volleyball court.

"The building is really iconic within the city of Columbia, and its prime location and excellent framework for renovation were all motivating factors in our decision to pursue its acquisition," Benjamin Modleski, COO of Core Campus, told

That was before the colorful conflict erupted.

Red Light, Green Light

In January, Columbias nine-member Design/Development Review Commission tentatively approved the project plan, estimated at $60 million to $80 million, on the condition that the developer, architect, and city officials could agree on a paint scheme.

However, that’s a big if, as similar recent controversies in Florida, elsewhere in South Carolina, and now Colorado have shown. Increasingly, city officials are finding that agreeing on paint colors—especially in a public setting—is not an easy thing.

Auto Loan Office - York, SC
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Complaints about bright yellow and green exteriors have city planners in York, SC, studying color guidelines in building codes.

The commission set Feb. 14 as the deadline to review the developers’ latest plan, but a meeting Friday (Feb. 8) to work out a compromise did not go well, according to local news reports.

Bringing Vitality

At the meeting, the developers unveiled a “new muted look” by project architect Antunovich Associates “using plasticized paint to cover some of the ribbed concrete exterior,” reported The State of South Carolina. The plan eliminated the “scattered colored panels” that drew the biggest objections.

Core Campus chief executive Ben Modleski called the paint job “really fantastic,” while Antunovich Associates principal Jeffrey Zelisko said the new look would give the old building “vitality that we feel it doesn’t have.”

Local contractor Lee Mashburn simply accused the panel of meddling.

“I feel like this committee is trying to put its stamp (on the building)," he said. "This is just typical of Columbia. You’re trying to put a stamp on something that doesn’t need a stamp.”

‘God Himself Can’t Make Paint Stick’

Commissioner and Columbia architect Lesesne Monteith could not have disagreed more.

“You’ve been granted a legacy, a good piece of architecture here, and everything you propose diminishes it,” Monteith said, according to The State. “To go in there and put paint on elegant material is really anathema to me.”

Monteith accused the team of “tarting up” the structure, which sits caddy-corner from the Columbia Museum of Art.

Commissioner Betsy Kaemmerlen suggested cleaning the building and limiting new color to the street and roof levels, while Commissioner Dale Marshal objected to the coating material itself, the newspaper said.

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Perhaps more significant, Monteith questioned whether the paint job would even work.

“God Himself can’t make paint stick to concrete in South Carolina,” Monteith said, according to the Columbia Business Report.

Sweet and Sour Dispute

As Columbia grappled with its downtown blues, a similar controversy has erupted in Trinidad, CO, where candy store owner Liz Torres is on the defensive over a fresh candy-striped paint job at her upcoming I Love Sugar Candy and Sweet Shoppe.

I Love Sugar
The Trinidad Times

I Love Sugar's new paint job is causing indigestion with some of its neighbors in Trinidad, CO, but the town's building codes do not regulate exterior paint colors—at least, not yet.

Torres told The Trinidad Times that she had checked with the city building inspector before painting the new business in the struggling neighborhood and was told that she did not need a permit to paint the building. The city has no code requirements about commercial paint jobs.

Nevertheless, once the two-tone pink die was cast, neighbors complained about the building to the city planning office. Now, the city is reportedly looking at an ordinance to guide such decisions in the future.

“I think there might be some neighbors who are concerned about the color scheme," Torres told The Trinidad Times, "but I’m just trying to bring more business into downtown."


Tagged categories: Architectural coatings; Building codes; Color; Color + Design; Commercial Buildings; Commercial contractors; Concrete coatings and treatments; Design; Exterior Wall Coatings; Renovation

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (2/14/2013, 8:32 AM)

Can't paint concrete in South Carolina? Is there some magical energy field emanating from Columbia which makes concrete impossible to paint?

Comment from Marcia Walter, (2/22/2013, 11:04 AM)

Just from the photo of the building base, I wouldn't call the proposed painting as "tarting up" the building, but seems to be a sensitive scheme and refreshing. Though I can't see the neighborhood context, this building could be a nice focal point appropriate for its student use.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (2/25/2013, 8:56 AM)

I agree - the color scheme on the student building looks quite reasonable.

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