By C. Grant Jackson
As redevelopment of the 1600 block of Columbia’s Main Street reaches a crescendo, eyes are turning north toward the 1700 and 1800 blocks.
Three major initiatives hold the key to redevelopment on those two blocks: a long-needed refurbishment of the city streetscape, potential relocation of the Richland County Judicial Center, and the city’s call for redeveloping portions of both the 1700 and 1800 blocks.
The city has invested about $20 million in streetscaping Main Street from the Statehouse to the 1600 block and the private investment that has followed has been about $400 million in new construction and building rehabilitation, said Matt Kennell, CEO of the City Center Partnership. Kennell believes one reason so much private investment has followed is that the streetscaping has included not only cosmetic appearance work, but also the water, sewer and electronic infrastructure necessary for development.
But the current streetscape ends with the 1600 block at Main and Blanding streets. “We have literally had retail prospects that we have walked down the street. As we’re strolling down Main Street, they literally hit the brakes. They won’t get beyond the streetscape,” Kennell said.
The 1700 block was streetscaped in the 1980s, but that has deteriorated significantly leaving cracked sidewalks, broken bricks and a sunken median. Kennell would like to see it redone just like the other blocks. The city has twice failed to get federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery or TIGER grant funding for the project, but has announced it will move ahead this year with work to improve the intersections of Main and Blanding streets and Main and Laurel streets. Those improvements will help, Kennell said, but will not be the full streetscaping done on the other blocks.
Kennell hopes some work also can be done in the 1800 block, although because Main Street opens up as it crosses Laurel a median is probably not needed. Some property owners, such as AgFirst, which bought the Bank of America Tower, have taken it on themselves to do some landscaping to improve the block’s appearance.
The biggest impact on redevelopment of the 1700 and 1800 blocks is likely to come from the City of Columbia itself. Columbia is looking to redevelop nearly 4 acres of city-owned property on two sites across Laurel and Main Street streets. The mixed-use project would include a new municipal complex and could include some combination of residential, retail and commercial space as well a new public parking deck.
About half the property stretches from the corner of Main and Laurel streets – the city purchased the former United Way building at 1800 Main in 2015 – to the corner of Sumter and Laurel streets, where the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator is housed in a city-owned building. The incubator is planning to move to the Innovista Innovation District closer to the university campus.
The rest of the property is behind the 1700 block of Main fronting along Laurel and Sumter streets and a small piece on Blanding Street. It includes the current city bus transfer station.
In early January, the city issued a “Request for Qualifications” for the project seeking “an experienced developer to conceptually design and execute a multi-use project.” The city’s timetable calls for interviews with qualified developers in early April and approval in mid May.
But city officials emphasize the historic City Hall will remain.
The third factor in redeveloping the area is the Richland County Judicial Center. County officials and those who work in the courthouse built in 1980 at the corner of Blanding and Main generally agree that it needs to be replaced. But how and where to put it?
“All we have right now is the desire to replace the building, and to keep it downtown,” said County Councilman Greg Pearce. While there was some initial conversation earlier in the year about creating a joint city-county facility, that does not seem feasible, Pearce said, largely because of timing.
Officials have put things on hold while the new county administrator conducts a full assessment of the county’s complete space needs, not just the courthouse. In the meantime, the county has found money for some repairs to the building.
The existing courthouse site, with access to both Main Street and Assembly Street, could be a prime location for a mixed-use project or a hotel.
Even without the refurbished streetscape or the county and city projects, redevelopment has already jumped the Blanding Street barrier.
A boutique grocery store – Local Yocal — was announced in early March for a redeveloped Law Range building at 1712 Main St. It will join two restaurants —DaufusKEYS Gullah Bistro Grill & Piano Bar, a new restaurant at 1710 Main, and The Epicurean by Al-Amir — as the only retail establishments on either side of the 1700 block. Because of its proximity to the county judicial center, the row of buildings along the east side of the 1700 block has long been home to several law offices as well as other commercial space.
Attorney Hyman Rubin Jr., whose law office is at 1704 Main and whose wife owns that building and the vacant building on the corner at 1700 Main, believes that redevelopment will keep moving up Main Street.
Rubin said they have had interest in the 1700 building, but have not found the right fit. “We are not going to sell it. It is right next door to us and we want to have it,” he said.
The building needs to be renovated inside and out, and Rubin is looking for a tenant willing to make a financial commitment to that renovation. “I am certainly willing to commit funds to it, but I don’t want to do all that and then have somebody there briefly and disappear.”