Growth & Development

As Investment Pours In, Vista Strives to Maintain Character

By Eva Moore
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
social columbia sc
Revelers at Social. The Vista will soon see an influx of students.

Leaders of the Congaree Vista Guild last week touted some $400 million in investment coming to their district, even as they acknowledged that some of the changes ahead might not be smooth.

At a media breakfast on Feb. 19, Vista Guild Director Sarah Lewis pointed to public investment projects, residential developments, and incoming retailers and restaurants as signs of the continued health of the downtown district. At the same time, she acknowledged that rent in the district has become “extremely high” for some traditional tenants such as galleries, and she vowed that even as student housing moves in, “you’re not going to see dollar drinks in the Vista.”

Since the late 1980s, the Vista has evolved from a warehouse district into a restaurant-  and gallery-rich area that prides itself as a haven for artists and creative business people, such as architects and web designers, as well as on its respect for the historic integrity of its buildings.

Larry Hembree, director of Trustus Theatre and board president of the Vista Guild, calls the area “vibrant and progressive,” adding that, “We are all passionate about being here.”

The investment pouring into the area is a sign of its continued vibrancy. But even as leaders welcome the incoming investment, they also prepare to grapple with its consequences.

“It’s going to change,” Hembree says. “It’s going to get handsome for some.”

In some cases, galleries might need to move — if only a few blocks. Clark Ellefson, one of the Vista’s pioneers, moved his Lewis + Clark gallery from the heart of the Vista on Lincoln Street to Huger Street, an area he told The State is “the new frontier” for keeping art and artists in the area.

Many of the public projects discussed at the Feb. 19 event are ongoing, and a few are on the outskirts of what the average city dweller would consider the Vista. They include ongoing completion of the Three Rivers Greenway; the $29 million expansion of the State Museum, which will add a long-awaited planetarium and observatory; the new $95 million Moore School of Business on Assembly Street; $8 million in Assembly Street streetscaping; and a planned Greene Street streetscaping and bridge project to be funded by the new Richland County transportation tax.

Among the residential developments are 200 new units at CanalSide near Huger Street and 180 units on Whaley Street in Olympia, both of which are already under construction. Forthcoming student housing projects include a $40 million, 700-bedroom Edwards Development project at the corner of Pulaski and Blossom streets, and a $96 million USC Holder Partnership project on Park Street. The city Design/Development Review board just approved USC’s plans last week; called the West Campus Development Project, it will include 878 bedrooms and two parking garages.

While all of these investments will affect the Vista, it is perhaps student housing and the evolving face of retail and restaurants in the area that could affect the district’s character the most. Urban Outfitters opened on Gervais Street last year, a sign that Columbia in general — and the Vista in particular — is becoming a more attractive destination for national retailers and restaurants.

“Restaurants pay a lot more in rent than a gallery,” Lewis says. But “our roots are with galleries and small businesses, and we recognize that.”

But among the retailers on the immediate horizon, most are local or regional. Entourage Clothing & Gifts, opening on Lady Street in March, is regional, with locations in Clemson and several Georgia cities. Carolina Couture, a bridal store, is local. Studio Cellar, a new drink-and-paint studio next to City Art on Lady Street, is local.

On the restaurant front, the Charleston-based vegan eatery Black Bean Co. is opening later this spring, Nonnah’s is relocating from the south to the north side of Gervais Street, and a couple of yet-to-be-named national restaurant chains will be coming to the area soon, too.

As all these changes come to the district, Hembree says the Guild is focused on three key things: ensuring the safety of the district; understanding and preparing for the changes students will bring; and attracting a broad base of retail.

Adds Lewis: “Responsible growth” is what the Guild stands for, and “keeping the character” is key.

Will that be possible with a couple thousand students added to the area and national retailers and restaurants further driving up property prices? That’s the challenge facing the Vista Guild. 

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