The Palmetto Center is being converted into private high-end student housing. Photo by Austin Price
Walk along Main Street in downtown Columbia on any day of the week, and you’ll see people dining at tables on the sidewalk outside Good Life Café, shopping at Mast General Store, toting cups of ice cream from Paradise Ice. By 6 p.m., there’s often a half-hour wait for a table at Bourbon.
The energy on the street is palpably different than just a few months ago — people are actually coming here not just because they work in an office downtown, or because the bus station’s nearby and they have nowhere else to go, but because they want to be here.
It wasn’t always like this. Downtown Columbia, like so many downtowns across the country, fell on hard times during the ’60s and ’70s as commerce moved to shopping malls outside the city center and middle- and upper-class people moved out of urban centers.
But things have changed. Beginning around 2002, developer Tom Prioreschi started converting old buildings into apartments downtown, luring the first brave souls back to Main. A major streetscaping of Main between Gervais and Laurel was completed in 2008. And in the years since, city leaders have wooed businesses, funneled money downtown for façade improvement grants and promoted the corridor’s rebirth.
More recently, that change has accelerated. Three years ago, when Mast General Store opened a location in the old Lourie’s building at the corner of Taylor and Main, the store’s corporate management estimated it would bring 1,500 to 2,000 people downtown each weekend. These days, Mast isn’t the only thing bringing people downtown. Soda City Market stretches along the 1500 and sometimes the 1400 block, drawing hundreds of shoppers each Saturday morning. The Nickelodeon Theatre pulls in moviegoers. During the winter, people ice skate at a new rink in front of the Museum of Art.
After years of building, Main Street has arrived.
Sure, there’s still work to be done. But the guts of the area are in place. Retailers are forming a merchants association. There’s a wide selection of restaurants.
But Main Street is also facing a massive change next month, when nearly 900 new residents, mostly students, move into The Hub At Columbia, a high-rise private student housing development on the 1400 block. Overnight, the number of people living downtown will skyrocket from 300 to 1,200. And that could test Main Street’s new infrastructure in serious ways.
With The Hub on the horizon, we decided to take a look at how far Main Street’s come, and what more needs to happen for it to sustain its success.
The Downtown Moment
Mayor Steve Benjamin’s had a rough year, what with losing his push for a strong-mayor government in the Capital City, and coping with a fractured City Council. But there’s one arena in which everything’s going the mayor’s way: Main Street.
In 2011, Benjamin explicitly staked the success of his first term on the success of Main Street.
“The revitalization is quite frankly a core tenet of how we will determine if we have been successful as city leaders,” Benjamin said at that time.
That year, Mast opened its doors — a big retail store in the middle of an area with plenty of potential but not much in the way of guaranteed foot traffic. Many people see that as the turning point for downtown.
Since then, according to estimates prepared by the mayor’s staff and City Center Partnership, more than $243 million in downtown development has been completed, begun or announced.
That includes projects from the shiny new Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church ($6 million, completed in 2011) to the careful restoration of three historic buildings to make room for the offices of Agape Senior ($8.2 million, opened this year) — a space complete with meeting facilities, the restaurants Michael’s and Good Life Café, and a pharmacy. At least four banks opened or moved downtown. New restaurants include Cowboy Brazilian Steakhouse, Cantina 76, Olive Grill, Drip Coffee and Oak Table, while other enterprises new to downtown include Mad Monkey, Inc., the men’s clothing store Circa 1332, Jamie Scott Fitness, the gift store Nest and — just this week — Metropolis [online copy corrected] Salon and Dry Bar.
“This is a microcosm of what’s happening all across the world: People are coming back to urban centers,” Benjamin tells Free Times.
More people are working downtown, too. Four and a half years ago, downtown office occupancy bottomed out at 75 percent: SCANA had moved its offices and 900 employees across the river to Cayce, gutting Main Street and leaving more than a million square feet of office space open.
Since then, the market’s made steady gains. As of the end of 2014’s first quarter, according to Colliers, office occupancy was around 88 percent. That’s a bit down from last year, largely because BB&T moved its offices from one downtown building to another, opening up some new office space.
But 88 percent is pretty high occupancy, according to Colliers: “Even with the additional available space, the [Central Business District] remains in short supply of high quality office space.”
That means the city’s actually in desperate need of more office space — and indeed, city leaders are hoping someone will build a new downtown high rise or two in the coming years.
Not every new downtown business succeeds. S&S Art Supply took a chance on Main, but had to close last year. The music venue The White Mule couldn’t make it; neither could Fever, the Southwestern restaurant on the 1200 block that picked a high-profile fight with a taco cart several years ago. And there’s trouble brewing for one of downtown’s foremost developers: Tom Prioreschi, who built most of the residential space on Main, faces a foreclosure on a property he bought in the Vista from the City of Columbia, which he’s fighting tooth and nail. Still, Prioreschi says he plans to launch a new apartment project on Lady Street.
In the meantime, rents continue to rise downtown, but there finally seems to be enough momentum that quality businesses are choosing to move down here in greater numbers.
The businesses already here could face a shock next month, when The Hub opens.
Island in the Sky
For years, SCANA was headquartered in the Palmetto Center, a looming, Brutalist-style edifice towering 21 stories above Main between Hampton and Washington Streets. When SCANA moved to Cayce in 2009, there was a lot of hand-wringing about what would become of the half-a-million-square-foot building.
But then Chicago-based student housing company Core Campus bought the building and persuaded the city’s various design and planning commissions to let it house students in the Palmetto Center. By City Center Partnership’s estimate, The Hub represents an $80 million capital investment.
All units in The Hub At Columbia were leased months ago. The development features a rooftop pool, 60-person hot tub and volleyball court on the roof of a downtown parking garage — with a 20-foot LED screen. There’s a tanning salon inside the building.
Starting Aug. 1, residents will move in, with the bulk of them arriving Aug. 14 and 15.
The HUB at Columbia has developed student housing in the former SCANA headquarters. Photo by Austin Price
Michelle Carswell, property manager for The Hub, says federal housing law prevents her from sharing demographic data about The Hub’s residents, so it’s not clear whether they’ll all be students or whether some will be young professionals. However, it’s clear the development is marketed at a very young crowd.
Matt Kennell, who heads the City Center Partnership, isn’t entirely sure what to expect.
“We know it’s going to be young and youthful and fresh, and we’re really looking forward to that,” Kennell says. But he also notes that it’s going to increase the number of people downtown fourfold. And even without The Hub yet open, things are already getting busier — and messier — on Main.
“We’re already seeing our yellowshirts picking up more trash, dealing with more issues … more people dropping drink cups and cigarette butts on the ground,” he says. ”We’re not really looking at that as a bad thing,” but simply a sign that things are growing, he says.
There’s been a lot of discussion as to whether downtown has the infrastructure to support these students.
They’ll have parking spaces assigned in a garage, but metered street spaces will likely be more clogged than before, too.
Restaurants downtown tend to cater to an office lunch crowd — many aren’t open late at night, when students tend to eat.
Then there are the little things. Agape’s pharmacy is stocking sunscreen, toilet paper, cleaning supplies and the like, but beyond that, the nearest place to buy such necessities is the Publix at the bottom of the Vista or the CVS on Assembly Street.
“There’s rumblings around that somebody would like to open a bodega downtown,” Kennell says. “I would fully expect, with the residential population going up, [we] could justify a small grocery downtown.”
Carswell, the property manager, says she’s sure businesses will quickly fill the needs of The Hub’s residents.
“There are currently some fabulous businesses/business owners on Main Street and they, as are we, are very excited about their opportunity to reach 850 potential customers,” she writes via email.
Rick Patel, who owns the Sheraton, is getting ready, too. He has plans to open a Starbucks in the basement of his hotel, which holds down the end of the same block as The Hub. He’s applied for a liquor license for the space, which means it could be one of the new Starbucks Evenings locations, which feature a wine and beer list. (Patel was out of the country for several weeks while this story was being written, but he’s announced his plans to the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce.)
Mark Plessinger, who owns the eyeglass store Frame of Mind, says it’s up to business owners to adapt to the new market. He’s stocked some hip new sunglasses he hopes will be popular with the students at The Hub — they’re made of wood, and they float.
“It’s not my core, but it’s up to me as a business owner to have a product they will buy,” he says. “If you’re a business that’s been there for five years or 30 years, if you’re catering to one specific thing and that thing is no longer there, do you go somewhere else?”
The Hub will be good for his business even if its residents don’t shop at his store, he says. It’s the same with other growth downtown.
“Soda City doesn’t necessarily bring me any business; however, having a market on the street every weekend makes the street more valid. They say ‘Oh, Main Street!’ The Hub will help the street as a whole. We’ve got more bodies on the street that are going to need things.”
The mayor agrees.
“We’re seeing what we wanted to see on Main after the last several years,” Benjamin says. “All the little things and big things are adding up, and you get this shot of adrenaline in the arm — [The Hub] has a lot of possibilities.”
There’ve been rocky patches for Main Street over the last few years.
For one thing, not every business downtown is thrilled about the boom. King’s Jewelers and Drake’ Duck-In have objected to the many special events downtown — festivals, the Soda City farmers market — saying their customers can’t find a place to park.
More people downtown also means more people on the sidewalks. Kennell recently called for city government to take a broad look at Main Street’s sidewalks — everything from bike riding to skateboards to newspaper boxes. That led to a proposal by Councilman Cameron Runyan to ban skateboarding on Main, an ordinance City Council will take up soon. Skateboarders point out that there are few skateboards on Main these days — so why ban an entire form of transportation preemptively?
Downtown’s infrastructure still needs some help, too. The area remains disconnected from the Vista because of how hard it is for pedestrians to cross Assembly Street — and will be disconnected from Bob Hughes’ project at the former mental hospital unless it’s easier for pedestrians to cross Bull and Elmwood. And the Main Street streetscaping stops north of Laurel Street, leaving a wide-open stretch of non-revitalized downtown that’s unlikely to draw new businesses.
Kennell’s been talking about the need for infrastructure changes for many years.
“I am frustrated it hasn’t happened yet,” he says. “It is what we need to take downtown to the next level.”
Still, he points out, governments are working to complete those projects, with Richland County considering using funds from a new sales tax to streetscape more of Assembly Street, with safer pedestrian crossings, and the City of Columbia applying for a federal grant to streetscape Main all the way out to Columbia College.
And, of course, Columbia’s ever-present struggles with the homeless have affected Main Street.
In the summer of 2013, those struggles reached a boiling point, with a spike in visible homelessness downtown and many business owners and residents complaining about it to city leaders.
“I can’t imagine a Main Street where homeless people commingle with people who have to go to work, who want to shop,” said one attorney at the height of last year’s panic.
The city’s proposed response, led by Runyan, alienated a lot of citizens, what with talk of moving homeless people outside the city center to a proposed homeless rehab center called The Retreat, and cracking down on things like loitering. Those efforts ran up against constitutional concerns and drew national negative attention to Columbia.
City leaders haven’t yet crafted a long-term solution to homelessness, but they did extend the winter shelter’s operations so it’s been continuously open since last September. And in general, the homeless panic of last year seems to have died down a bit.
“We still get our characters,” says Kennell, citing a man whom people referred to as “Blond Jesus” who was hanging around downtown asking people for rides to Paris. “But it’s not like it used to be.”
For the coming year, City Center Partnership has asked the city for more hospitality tax money to hire two more yellowshirts, the “clean and safe” workers who patrol Main Street. The mayor supports the request, as he does a request to expand the yellowshirt program into the nearby Vista.
Of course, there’s still more to be done.
For the past several years, Plessinger has been organizing First Thursdays on Main, during which artists display their art at downtown businesses, with food and drinks on offer and various performances along the street. It’s brought thousands of people to Main Street.
“What can we do to work together? That’s where First Thursdays came from,” Plessinger says.
Perhaps it’s a sign that Main Street is growing up that Plessinger is now organizing an official merchants’ association for downtown. (The City Center Partnership officially represents property owners, not merchants.) He’s pursuing nonprofit status with the IRS, and has applied for hospitality tax funding from the city, which gives money to groups like the Vista Guild, the Five Points Association and Devine Street Merchants.
In the meantime, the next few months should bring even more changes to downtown as businesses and residents adjust to the influx of college students.
Many questions loom. Will the growth fueled by those college students be sustainable? Will Main Street face the same kinds of problems that Five Points has? Will Main Street’s new residents engage with the corridor, or be an island unto themselves?
What seems clear is that Columbia is changing in permanent ways, with residents and development slowly becoming more concentrated in the city center. And the downtown that Columbia is creating now is the framework on which the city will grow in the coming decades. It’s not so often one gets to see all the bricks in the foundation falling into place.
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