A September stroll down Main Street is a strikingly different experience these days.
Backpacks with University of South Carolina logos hitch rides with students hurrying through crosswalks. Bodies crowd sidewalk tables at restaurants and coffee shops in the late afternoon sunlight. Storefront windows offer clothing and coffee cups sporting spurs and feathers.
As Columbia’s downtown revitalization continues, a trend is clear among the hustle and bustle: The growth has a distinctive college flavor, and with USC’s enrollment increasing at a rate of around 1,000 students per year, that aspect will only become more evident.
“That’s about two large residential complexes every year that we can just keep anticipating,” said Matt Kennell, CEO of City Center Partnership, a nonprofit organization that promotes economic development in downtown Columbia. “I’m observing a number of restaurants extending their lunch hours. Cantina 76 and Bourbon used to close in the afternoon. Now they’re busy at 3 p.m. Students don’t eat at noon like the rest of us do. You’re seeing that up and down Main Street.”
In August alone, the Main Street Public House opened at 1556 Main St. and two area eateries – Blue Flour Bakery and Albert’s Deli – announced plans to open second locations on Main Street. In June, Charleston restaurant chain East Bay Deli announced a planned Main Street location.
“We’re seeing almost an unprecedented amount of new casual dining restaurants open up in the area that appeal to everybody, but certainly to students,” Kennell said.
And that’s just a slice of the scene. Student-centered housing is also a growing presence, with both private and on-campus complexes being built or expanding with regularity. New offerings for students this semester include Park Place (640 beds at Blossom and Huger streets), The Station at Five Points (660 beds at Gervais and Harden) and 650 Lincoln Phase Two (297 beds at 650 Lincoln St.).
Other newly opened complexes, such as Tremont Apartments just across the Blossom Street bridge in Cayce and Palmetto Compress at 612 Devine St., also provide housing options for students. Still more, such as the recently greenlighted high-rise planned for the corner of Assembly and Washington streets known as the Edge, continue to come online.
From 2013-14, USC's enrollment grew by 1,007 students; from 2014-2015, enrollment grew by 801.
Fueling the boom
Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corporation, said that just two years ago, about 1,250 people lived downtown.
“Now it’s somewhere around 6,000, maybe even pushing towards 7,000, people,” Delk said. “In just a couple of years, that’s a pretty amazing transformation of the city.”
The downtown student housing boom began with the 2014 opening of the Hub, a luxury apartment complex at 1426 Main St. in the former SCANA high-rise. A 50%, 10-year tax cut on projects that involved at least $40 million in investment offered by the city of Columbia to developers until the end of 2015 kicked the residence renaissance into high gear.
“It certainly primed the pump and created the designation of the heart of downtown as a place for students to live,” Kennell said.
Developments in various stages continue to crop up around the arteries leading to Main Street, particularly in the Vista, where 2,000 new residents – many of them living in student-centered housing – from August 2015 to August 2016 boosted the area’s population to 5,000.
“The development pipeline is still tremendous,” said Todd Avant, CEO of Columbia-based commercial real estate firm NAI Avant. “The future is very bright.”
Avant predicts even more mixed-use developments catering to the students, young professionals and empty nesters who are flocking to downtown in growing numbers.
“It’s not just the students,” Avant said. “If you go to the Vista on a Saturday or a Sunday, families are everywhere. To me, it’s a good, healthy mix.”
That mix shares one common characteristic: a lessening dependence on cars. That means increased foot traffic, which is great for business but taxes an infrastructure already struggling to keep up.
“Parking is in high demand,” Avant said. “Interest in new garages is strong. We think certainly the Vista is in need of a couple of new garages. Main Street is very likely in need of a new parking garage.”
Avant envisions public/private partnerships with the city of Columbia coming together to meet that need.
Another concern is pedestrian safety as distinct areas become more connected but lack safe paths between them.
“We can have great districts, but if you can’t cross Assembly or Elmwood or Gervais … ” Kennell said. “What I’m probably most concerned about are the pedestrian crossings and making it more pedestrian- and bike-friendly.”
Growth in retail
Officials also foresee a need for bigger-box retailers such as grocery and office supply stores to serve the growing downtown population. A 113,500-square-foot Kroger is planned as part of a mixed-use development at the former Capital City Stadium, though that project has run into several delays since being announced five years ago.
“Typically, the succession of retail is food and then entertainment and then – I call it shopping bag retail,” Kennell said. “(Those) retailers want to make money from the day they open. They’re not really pioneers. I think as we get to this critical mass downtown, it makes retailers count heads and makes it much more likely that you would see something like a Target or an Apple store.”
Kennell said downtown may be reaching its restaurant peak with more than 85 restaurants in the Vista and around 50 in the Main Street district. The entertainment options are now expanding, with a bowling alley set to open in the old Army Navy store and a luxury movie theater coming to the Commons at BullStreet development.
As to potential market oversaturation, Avant thinks competition will weed out the weaker links.
“The restaurant operators that are providing mediocre food and mediocre services are just going to have mediocre sales,” he said. “We see the best operations that are providing truly unique dining experiences and excellent food and quality service will continue to do extremely well, regardless of how many new restaurants may or may not be coming in.”
A focus of growth and development leaders is keeping the ever-expanding downtown and Vista districts spic and span – and safe. The Congaree Vista Guild employs two Clean and Safe ambassadors who pick up trash, address the needs of Vista business and property owners, answer visitors’ questions and distribute maps, and keep the guild informed about any issues in the district.
“I was just talking with some folks from Charlotte and Raleigh,” Kennell said. “They’re noticing how good the area looks as compared to four or five years ago. It’s making a difference, and I think that attracts more people. It’s sort of a chicken-and-egg thing.”
The unabated growth, officials agree, is also spilling over into Five Points, a traditional student hot spot that is working its way back from crime and safety troubles. Delk cited a planned new plaza, a new garden center on Blossom Street and the redevelopment possibilities at the former Claussen’s Inn as positive indicators for the area.
“In my view, there is plenty to go around,” Delk said. “Everybody should be and will be taking advantage of all this growth.”
Part of that growth includes keeping USC graduates in town to work where they want to live, instead of moving to where jobs are perceived to be.
“Oftentimes, living in the heart of downtown is the first choice now for the under-30-year-olds, and we really need to capitalize on that and do the right thing to continue to attract those folks,” Kennell said. “We have an opportunity to build a workforce here if we make the right decisions.”