You see the growth in West Columbia as soon as you reach the western end of the Gervais Street bridge. The new Brookland residential and retail development and Black Rooster French-inspired restaurant greet you to the left.
Just beyond that is State Street with its multicultural neighborhood vibe. Continue west on Meeting Street and a new interactive art park is open. Buildings and lots that were empty one year ago now have a future, including the Chayz Lounge jazz club, Primal Gourmet and a Class A office building being built by West Columbia developer Joe Taylor.
“State Street is a really cool and eclectic hospitality and retail district,” Taylor said. “There’s somewhere in the neighborhood of five to seven restaurants being renovated, or new, getting ready to open … in the next three to four months, which is pretty amazing.”
A sushi restaurant is slated to open in the former location of 116 Espresso and Wine Bar on State Street, while Crepes and Croissants is set to open a breakfast-and-lunch restaurant next door.
Taylor sees potential in the area where three main thoroughfares meet, known to locals as Triangle City, but suffering from a lack of new commercial development. Triangle City is where Meeting Street, Charleston Highway and 12th Street converge, creating a series of triangles in the streetscape.
“I think Triangle City is a diamond in the rough,” Taylor said. “I think it has the potential to become an extraordinarily neat retail hospitality destination — the Meeting Street corridor — when you look at the new jazz bar and Bill’s Pickin’ Parlor and Primal Gourmet.”
Since opening his office on State Street about five years ago, Taylor, a former S.C. Secretary of Commerce who helped recruit the Boeing 787 assembly plant to North Charleston, has been looking for development opportunities in West Columbia. He saw a lack of office space in the city and feels the two-story, 5,400-square-foot spec building under construction at 508 Meeting St. will help address that.
Further down Meeting Street in the Triangle City neighborhood, Taylor also developed a flex building at 1025 D Ave. with his State Street 1 LLC real estate holding company, and he has two more projects in the works.
Taylor said established area businesses such as Terra, Café Strudel, Bill’s Pickin’ Parlor, Al’s Upstairs and Zesto can help anchor new development.
“All we’re trying to do is contribute to something that’s been there for quite a long time,” he said.
Taylor has lived in Columbia for nearly three decades and commuted to Irmo during much of that time, but he said he likes the feel of State Street because neither Columbia nor Irmo have the same atmosphere.
“It’s like a little New York on State Street,” he said. “You’ve got a great restaurant in Terra. You’ve got a local restaurant in Café Strudel. You’ve got kind of the rock-and-roll bar, the New Brookland Tavern, you’ve got the local bar in the State Street Pub. And then you’ve got these cool little restaurants that are ready to pop.”
Calling the environment “very business-friendly,” Taylor said the West Columbia city government makes it easy for developers and businesses to fulfill their goals.
“They really work with you diligently to get zoning. The citizens here are very interested in it, participate with the process and make it quick,” he said. “Building permits are quick to get. They have the planning commission in City Council. They don’t have the additional four or five layers of bureaucracy. … The cost of doing business is less. Taxes are lower here.”
West Columbia director of economic development BJ Unthank said the city appeals to potential businesses because its taxes and fees are competitive with Columbia and Richland County.
“One of the reasons that we’re experiencing this kind of growth is we’re low-cost to operate, low-cost to do business here. Our taxes are lower,” Unthank said. “We’re a safe community, and the city of West Columbia is investing in its public spaces.”
Unthank said the city has bent over backward to help its businesses, making a one-stop shop for its permitting office, licensing office, building inspector and zoning and planning administrators.
“We are ready to serve the public,” he said. “We see our functions here as staff as the public is our customer and we want to make sure they get what they need. Businesses in particular, we’re very business-friendly. We go the extra mile to help people out.”
The city of West Columbia also has invested in public spaces to encourage people to want to live there in addition to working, dining and shopping in the area. In addition to its popular Riverwalk Park, the city recently opened an interactive art park behind State Street, and more public spaces are planned.
“Those investments are paying off, not only in terms of walkability and livability but also in terms of people wanting to come to the area and invest their businesses and live in the area,” Unthank said.
Taylor said the positive attitude is contagious in West Columbia, spreading to existing business owners who see empty neighboring storefronts becoming occupied. That motivates them to paint, pave parking lots or make other improvements on their properties, he said.
“I think West Columbia is a shining example to all of the other municipal governments in the area that the easier you make it for people to invest in your community, the more people will invest in your community,” he said.
Unthank said the growth in West Columbia goes beyond the commercial districts of State Street, Meeting Street and Triangle City. He said property values are growing in the Avenues residential neighborhood, where a new development is being planned with 34 homes starting in the $200,000s.
“Three or four years ago, you could buy houses in the Avenues for very reasonable pricing. Now they’re hard to come by,” Unthank said. “People have seen the value and they’re buying them, and they’re moving in and living there. … We believe that trend is going to continue.”
Savage Craft Ale Works plans to open a brewery in the old Brookland Fire Station and City Hall on Center Street in spring 2020. Developers said storm and sewer line agreements have been reached with West Columbia, Lexington County and the S.C. Department of Transportation, and the project awaits approval from the state historical preservation office before breaking ground in a few months.
The city planning and zoning department has been in discussions with the owner of The Whig in downtown Columbia, who wants to open a beer garden at 626 Meeting St., which is the site of the former Conundrum Music Hall. The city revised its ordinance to allow such businesses in its gateway overlay district, but has not received any plans, city of West Columbia communications and technology director Anna Huffman said in email.
As the growth and infill progresses westward down Meeting Street from the Congaree River, Huffman said Triangle City is full of development opportunities. The city plans to link Triangle City with the riverfront through the Avenues with walking and bike lanes, she said.
“The other hidden jewel at the moment would probably be real estate in Triangle City, because that hasn’t been spruced up yet,” Huffman said. “State Street trickles into Meeting Street, and Meeting Street heads into Triangle City. The idea eventually is to have that whole area be walkable.”
Further down Meeting Street, off Dreher Road, Great Southern Homes is building 126 townhouses priced in the mid-$100,000s.
With the help of Redevelopment Management Associates, the city organized a citywide development plan, which identifies opportunity areas in the Riverfront District, Meeting Street Corridor, Triangle City, the former Colite property, District 5, Interstate 26 and Sunset Boulevard and the Sunset Boulevard/U.S. Highway 378 corridor between I-26 and Interstate 20. The report said the city is “ideal for commerce.”
Among the opportunities listed in the report were the presence of Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Gardens and the amount of vacant industrial and retail properties that could become adaptive reuse projects for developers. Challenges cited included the lack of visibility in the real estate market and the perception that West Columbia lacks assets compared to Columbia.
The plan suggested creating a Tax Increment Financing district to offer incentives for redevelopment, expanding the city’s facade grant improvement program and creating a merchant assistance program for business operations. The city created a TIF district to include Triangle City and the old Colite property.
Other suggestions include streetscaping and beautification projects and social media campaigns.
“There’s development going on in other areas, it’s just not as visible and it’s just not as fast,” Unthank said. “Right now we’re on the fast track in the State and Meeting street areas. But that fast track didn’t happen overnight. It’s been years in the making, so we’re glad to see what’s happening down there now.”