Welcome to the City of USC

By Chris Trainor
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
USC’s historic Horseshoe is the emotional center of USC and shouldn’t be changed, says My Carolina director Jack Claypoole. Photo by Sean Rayford

Old Columbia and New Columbia — which is essentially to say, Old USC and New USC — sit right beside each other. Right there along Assembly Street.

On one side sits the Carolina Coliseum, a perfect example of Old USC. Opened in 1968, the coliseum is a source of great memories for many. Elvis Presley played there. Frank McGuire’s Gamecock basketball teams called it home. It’s The Coliseum.

That said, it’s old — 46 years old, and it looks it.

Meanwhile, right next door is the new Moore School of Business facility. It’s the polar opposite of old. With its glimmering glass and bold design, everything about the 252,000-square-foot, $106.5 million Moore School screams “modern.”

Once again, the University of South Carolina is introducing a new building into the City of Columbia’s landscape. As the school has grown — particularly in the past 15 years or so — it literally has changed the way the city center looks, often in profound ways.

Think of some of the major buildings USC has constructed since 2000, particularly toward the southern end of campus and the western side, toward the Congaree River.

The Greek Village began to take shape in 2001 and has grown significantly since then.

Colonial Life Arena, current home of the Gamecocks’ basketball teams, opened in 2002 on Lincoln Street.

The Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center, on the corner of Assembly and Blossom, opened in 2003.

Carolina Stadium, USC’s highly regarded baseball facility, was unveiled in February 2009 on Williams Street.

The beloved (by some) old Honeycombs were torn down in 2007 and replaced by the comparatively luxurious Honors College residence hall in 2009.

And, of course, there’s the new Moore School, which is making its debut now.

These are but a few examples of new USC facilities that have come about since 2000. And more are on the way. A new law school is to be constructed just off Gervais Street. The My Carolina Alumni Association is in the midst of building a new Alumni Center at the corner of Senate and Lincoln streets, across from the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. And, of course, Carolina’s athletic programs are locked in a seemingly never-ending facilities arms race that comes with playing in the SEC.

The ever-expanding footprint of USC doesn’t come without its occasional growing pains, however. In-state tuition at the university is significantly higher than the national average. Innovista — a proposed 500-acre live-work research campus — has stalled as a physical space and evolved into more of an economic development concept. And the Vista and Main Street districts are grappling with a massive influx of students, hoping to capture the vitality young residents bring while avoiding the nightlife culture of $1 draft beer.

As USC physically grows and changes, so does the city surrounding it. Columbia and USC have been directly linked for 213 years. Now, perhaps more than ever, it seems the university is setting the pace when it comes to the direction and look of Columbia.

Chairman Emeritus: USC Faithful to Master Planning

Herbert Adams has had a close view of the physical and other changes at USC, as he has been associated with the university, in one way or another, for decades. He was a student at Carolina in the 1960s and became a member of the USC Board of Trustees in 1984.

Adams’ time on the board, which ended in 2012, included a stint as chairman from 2004 to 2008. He currently is listed as board chairman emeritus.

Adams notes that USC’s physical growth has not come on a whim. He says planning put in place more than two decades ago was a catalyst to where the university stands today.

“In the early 1990s, John Palms became [university] president,” Adams says. “One of the first things he did was to create a long-range master plan for physical facilities, for buildings and the development of the university — primarily for student affairs and academic buildings. With that long-range plan, naturally, being the first plan, it wasn’t followed exactly. But, it gave a good footprint for us to follow. And, the university has been fairly faithful to that.”

Residents of Columbia can clearly see the university has grown in a western direction in recent years, toward the Congaree River. According to Adams, the possibility of the school’s growth to the west was identified some time ago.

“Facilities-wise, you could see years ago what the university wanted to do, where we wanted to grow,” Adams says. “And it has done that and has been pretty faithful to that, both going south and west. We had pretty much gone as far as we could to the east, and Gervais Street was sort of the furthest thing [north].”

Funding such growth can be — and often is — a multilayered, complicated process, particularly in an economy that has gone through a recession within the last decade and continues to try to find solid footing in regard to employment. The university has several revenue sources it has tapped into for various capital projects in recent years, including student tuition and fees, athletic revenues, numerous private gifts and funds from federal leases. Where the school has not received a ton of help is from the state Legislature, as USC Board of Trustees members say there has not been a new bond bill in more than a decade.

As many in the community have watched the university grow and expand with state-of-the-art facilities, many can’t help but notice tuition costs also continue to rise. In-state tuition at USC is $11,158; nationally, the average in-state tuition at a public four-year school is $8,893, according to the College Board. The USC board approved a 3.2 percent tuition hike in June, along with a roughly 3.5 percent increase in food and housing. By comparison, Clemson University had a 3 percent increase in tuition for 2014-15, while the University of Georgia had a 7 percent tuition increase.

Even so, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance has ranked USC as one of the 100 Best Buys in College Education.

University board members stress that increases in tuition costs have been driven largely by a decline in support from the General Assembly. In 2004, 24 percent of USC’s revenue came from state appropriations, while 30.4 percent came from tuition and fees, according to a USC economic impact study. By 2013, just 10.3 percent came from the state — while 45.6 percent came from students.

For its part, the state has noticed the increasing tuition — and put limits on it. According to media reports, the S.C. Budget and Control Board informed state schools in 2009 that they must limit tuition increases or risk having construction projects rejected.

While Adams is pleased with the quality of USC’s new and relatively new facilities, and with the university’s plan for growth, he regrets that tuition costs have continued to rise over time, especially in the face of such obvious physical improvements and additions.

“It’s a disappointment, and I hate to say this, but we really have not received the financial help from the Legislature,” says Adams, who has three grandsons currently studying at USC. “I know they are limited in dollars, just like everybody. But, the Legislature, in my mind, as a whole, does not appreciate education, K-12 all the way up to higher education. At some point, that’s going to hurt us. We can’t continue to place the burden of [increasing] tuition on the students.”

Current USC Board of Trustees member Bubba Fennell echoes Adams’ thoughts.

“We’re having to do a lot with a little bit of money, because we are having to generate all of our money,” Fennell says. “The state hasn’t had a bond bill in 10 to 12 years. We have been having to figure out innovative ways to fund our projects. Obviously, what’s so bad is that some of it has got to get funded with tuition increases. That hurts.”

The university is in the midst of the Carolina’s Promise campaign, which is a $1 billion fundraising campaign set to run through June 2015. There are a number of goals of the fundraising campaign, including the expansion of funding for scholarships and financial aid, as well as improving facilities and technologies, among other initiatives.

According to Fennell, the university has garnered $870 million in gifts and pledges so far in the Carolina’s Promise campaign.

Among building projects associated with USC that have come about in the last 15 years, Adams said some of his favorites include the Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center, and the Greek Village.

Of course, there have been a wealth of upgrades to athletics facilities, as well, both to facilities for USC athletes and in the aesthetics of areas that cater to fans.

Adams points to Gamecock Park — a revamped entertainment and tailgating area across the street from Williams-Brice Stadium on the old Farmers Market site — as an example of a much-needed upgrade. He also lauds work done at the nearby fairgrounds.

“What the South Carolina Fairgrounds Association has done [with the parking areas there], people don’t notice it, but little by little they have transformed that area,” Adams says. “Give it 10 years, when the trees are grown. The university’s athletic facilities in that area, there won’t be any other place in the country that will match it, I’ll tell you that.”

Even the most casual observer of Columbia would note the university’s physical growth to the south and west in the last 15 years or so.

“That’s the way the new campus is moving,” Fennell says. “We are pretty much land-locked on the other side [of campus]. There are neighborhoods there that we would hate to go into and hate to move. One of the last spots we have up on the Gervais Street side is where the new law school will be built. That’s getting to be the edge of campus now, in that direction. In [the western direction] we have a lot of land, all the way to the river. There’s a lot of opportunity for growth down that way, though that does spread the campus out.”

The university’s imperative to grow is not without challenges, though. On Friday, The State reported that USC is in a bidding war with the Vulcan Mining Co., which owns a quarry in Olympia, over 300 acres of land near Williams-Brice Stadium.

University’s Strong Identity

Jack Claypoole has long held a love for USC. A 1987 graduate of the university, Claypoole now spends his days connecting with thousands of others who keep USC close to their hearts, as he is the director of the My Carolina Alumni Association.

Claypoole says he has been impressed with the way the university and the City of Columbia have made capital investments and other improvements that continue to draw students and others to the Capital City.

“From an alumni standpoint, one of the things that we are very excited about is how strong the university’s identity and brand is right now,” Claypoole says. “When you look at the number of students that want to come to Carolina, it’s a great barometer for quality of education and the environment in which that education is provided. Columbia is really a great destination and it is growing in its reputation in that area. Not only in university construction, but from the hospitality standpoint. The growth of the hospitality industry in Columbia makes Columbia a very attractive place.

“So, kind of at the same time the university is building a better academic program and better facilities, the city is making Columbia even more attractive, where we’re competing not just across South Carolina, but we are globally competitive in getting great students and great leaders to our campus,” Claypoole continues.

As for new facilities, the USC Alumni Association is about to get its turn in the rotation. A new 60,000-square-foot, $26.4 million Alumni Center — all privately funded — is under construction at the corner of Senate Street and Lincoln Street, directly across Lincoln from the convention center, on the site where Damon’s restaurant once stood. The Alumni Center is set to open in summer 2015.

At present, USC does not have a formal Alumni Center, though the Alumni Association office is in a small building at the corner of Senate and Pickens streets. The new Alumni Center will give the Alumni Association a large, multifaceted facility in which a host of events could be held. It will feature a main ballroom, private dining rooms, and numerous conference and meeting rooms.

“It will also be a place, most importantly to us, with a good environment and ample parking where we can blend today’s students and our alumni,” Claypoole says.

In the 27 years since he finished USC, Claypoole says, the aesthetics of the school and the city have shifted quite a bit. Demolition, new construction and renovations have been a seeming constant in the city center. Still, the Alumni Association executive director says there remains something classic about the university that was founded in 1801.

“It is very different from my years [in school at USC] in some ways, but, parts of it are the same,” Claypoole says. “The thing that’s great about Carolina is that the sort of emotional anchor to our campus has always been the Horseshoe. We, as alums, kind of view that as inviolate, that we can’t ever change the Horseshoe. But clearly, as we grow the institution to be competitive in the 21st century, the types of spaces that we have around campus now, I think, reflect the vision of our president and our board of trustees in looking for ways to not just maintain where we were, but to aggressively move this institution forward.”

usc moore school of business

Palmetto trees tower over a construction worker at the new business school. Photo by Sean Rayford

Growth Decades in the Making

Steve Benjamin has a distinct interest in the growth of USC, on multiple levels.

As the mayor of Columbia, he knows the university’s growth is directly tied to the city, as the campus is literally in the heart of town. As residents make their way through the city, it is not uncommon to slip onto campus, then off campus, then back on again during the course of their travels.

Meanwhile, Mayor Benjamin also holds a spot on USC’s Development Foundation board, a post he has held for a number of years. He also is a past member of the school’s Board of Visitors.

The mayor says the university’s expanding footprint has been a long time coming.

“The university’s growth west has really been decades in the making,” Benjamin says. “To watch a long-term vision and strategic plan actually materialize is incredible ... as mayor, to play a role in helping the vision of Innovista and the vision of the waterfront district come into being, that’s pretty exciting.”

A master plan for the Innovista district was approved by the City of Columbia in 2007, with a mixed-use zoning classification approved for that area in 2008. According to the Innovista master plan, the 500-acre Innovista planning area lies between the Congaree River to the west; the University of South Carolina, the State House complex and downtown Columbia to the east; the historic Olympia and Whaley Mills and associated mill village to the south and the arts and entertainment district along Gervais Street to the north.

The original intent of the Innovista district, according to Sasaki Associates, which developed the master plan, was to create “a new urban neighborhood integrated into the fabric of the downtown of the city and the university campus.” It was originally conceived as a concept in which USC researchers and innovation-focused private business partners would live and work.

That initial promise has not come to pass; instead, Innovista has morphed from an emphasis on a physical district into an emphasis on supporting innovation and the commercialization of USC researchers’ ideas more generally. Among the objectives laid out in a 2011 strategic plan were to “increase USC research commercialization productivity” and to “provide a continuum of space for innovative businesses.”

“We need to have a more coherent entrepreneurial environment,” director of Innovista partnerships Don Herriott said at the time, emphasizing another objective from the plan.

While the physical plans for Innovista have stalled for several reasons — the university cut ties with a developer several years ago after Free Times raised questions about his background, and Richland County rejected a city-proposed tax increment financing district, among other snags — the university has moved forward on the broader concept. Today, an Office of Economic Engagement coordinates numerous entrepreneurial initiatives.

As for the university’s growth to the west, Benjamin says he can still remember when there were several car lots in the area where the Strom Thurmond center and the Greek Village now stand.

“It’s been a long-term play,” Benjamin says, speaking of Carolina’s shift west. “We were one of the only major [college] cities in the South that didn’t have a real Greek Village.”

The mayor also notes the university has been integral in the economic development of the city. One symbol of that close relationship is the USC / Columbia Technology Incubator, which houses roughly 50 startup companies in downtown Columbia with support from USC, the City of Columbia and others.

According to information provided by Michael Wukela, strategic policy adviser to the mayor, there has been more than $900 million in new investment in downtown Columbia since 2011, through projects that have either been announced, are in progress or have been completed.

Of that $900 million, at least $412 million can be either directly or indirectly connected to the University of South Carolina.

One of the biggest areas in which USC has indirectly affected the look and day-to-day life of the city is through private student housing developments.

For instance, the city has been abuzz in recent weeks about the opening of The Hub, a 21-story high-rise in the heart of Main Street. Formerly an office building, The Hub went through a reported $40 million renovation and now serves as a luxury apartment complex for students and young professionals.

Based on the popularity of local projects such as The Hub and others, along with similar proclivities in many college towns, the private student housing trend is one that is likely to continue in Columbia.

Balancing the Historic and the Modern

When looking at the buildings USC has constructed in the last 15 years or so, in some cases it is readily apparent they are a major departure aesthetically from the historic buildings in the campus core. Other buildings in the center of campus maintain their historic look on the outside but have been fully renovated on the inside, with modern amenities and sustainability initiatives in mind. One such example is the new Women’s Quad (see sidebar).

As the school has expanded its territory within the city, it has tried to strike a balance between classic and modern, particularly in recent years, according to university spokesman Wes Hickman.

“We have established some university guidelines for architecture and design,” Hickman says. “The purpose of those is two-fold, really. For the historic core of campus, we want to be sure that historic look remains consistent and for those buildings that are historic on our campus, that when we renovate them … it’s in a manner that respects their history.

“As you start to move down toward the west part of campus, you start to see more urban looking buildings, more modern looking buildings that fit in with the design guidelines that we adhere to.”

Hickman notes that the university goes through the city’s Design/Development Review Commission to gain approval for each of its projects.

Derek Gruner is the university’s architect; he is chiefly responsible for master planning and adherence to architectural design standards for both new construction and renovations. 

Before any project seeks needed regulatory approval, it is first analyzed for consistency with the university’s master plan and the university’s priorities.

“Buildings within our historic core are sacred to our identity and their architecture is preserved while being sensitively renovated and adapted to accommodate modern paradigms in higher education,” Gruner says. “Buildings developed near Assembly Street are naturally more urban in scale and style. Harmony within this mosaic is preserved with consistent underlying architectural principles and a carefully conceived framework of streets and greenspaces which connect the buildings and give form to the actual campus.”

An Alumni Center is going up at the corner of Senate and Lincoln streets.Photo by Sean Rayford

It’s USC’s World — We’re Just Living In It

In discussing the relationship between USC and the City of Columbia, and how the former can help propel the latter, Benjamin is quite clear in his opinion.

“Our fortunes and our futures are intrinsically linked,” the mayor says. “We look forward to continuing to promote their growth.”

While much of the university’s capital growth doesn’t directly improve the city’s bottom line — as a state agency, buildings fully owned by the university aren’t on the city’s property tax rolls — the overarching economic effect the school has on the city, county and state is almost overwhelming. While the city isn’t collecting property tax on USC’s buildings, it is collecting tax on the homes owned by professors, administrative staff and others associated with the university, as well as on the meals eaten at local restaurants.

The university’s economic impact on the state is about $4 billion per year, according to a USC economic impact study. Granted, that includes the entire USC system of schools, but the Columbia campus is the beating heart of that mechanism. The same study found 3,158 full-time USC employees living in Richland County — and 40,695 USC alumni.

When the City of Columbia touts more than $900 million in investments in downtown since 2011, and nearly half of that number has come either directly or indirectly because of USC, you begin to understand just how vital the school is to its hometown.

As the university continues to grow and shift and become an even bigger part of the city, some must wonder, “Where and when does it all end?” Others may respond to that question with a question of their own: “Do we even want it to end?”

Perhaps one day we’ll all be living on campus.


Let us know what you think: Email editor@free-times.com.

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