National experts to Columbia SC help with downtown improvements

cleblanc@thestate.comFebruary 12, 2013 

  • If you go Two public meetings will be held this week as part of efforts to set priorities for connecting the competing business districts in downtown Columbia. •  Residents can offer suggestions before the plan is drafted at 6 p.m. today in the Hall of Fame Room of the Metropolitan Convention Center, 1101 Lincoln St. •  A national panel will present its recommendations at 9 a.m. Thursday at the same location.

— A national panel of experts in planning and executing development efforts is in Columbia to try to break through longstanding, competing interests in the city center that hold back well-intentioned studies that have gathered dust.

Nine volunteers from as far away as California, Colorado and Washington, D.C., are joining two South Carolinians as part of an Urban Land Institute panel, said Fred Delk, director of one of Columbia’s development groups.

The goal is to devise a plan that makes Columbia’s city center more accessible and vibrant, including making it more pedestrian friendly.

This panel is sponsored by business organizations that often compete for the dollars that accompany growth, Delk, of the Columbia Development Corp., said Monday. None of the $60,000 to defray the panel’s travel expenses comes from city funds, he said.

“This is the first time that I’m aware of that all these downtown organizations have gotten together at the same table,” Delk said. “What we have done (with past studies) is create these great plans and then nothing gets done.”

Those groups include the Congaree Vista Guild, the Five Points Association, the University of South Carolina, the Historic Columbia Foundation, City Center Partnership, the Columbia Development Corp. as well as major developers Thompson and Co., Guignard Associates and the Arnold Companies.

This panel’s job is “about breaking down barriers,” Delk said.

The out-of-town experts are to sort through the myriad other plans, boil down its own findings and suggest which projects should be done first “to get the biggest bang for the buck,” he said. Some of those plans include the city center master plan and the USC’s plans for its waterfront district, but many of those plans have been hobbled by the expense of such big-ticket projects.

The panel, led by chairman Alex J. Rose of Continental Development Corp., in El Segundo, Ca., is to tour the city’s business and entertainment districts and downtown neighborhoods Wednesday then hold a series of private meetings with stakeholders and members of City Council, Delk said.

Rose was flying to Columbia on Monday and could not be reached, his office said.

The closed-door meetings will include major downtown business leaders, the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, local real estate groups and others, Delk said. He declined to name anyone with whom the panel will be meeting.

The public will gets its chance to be heard today at a 6 p.m. “town hall” meeting at the city Convention Center on Lincoln Street.

Residents may express their suggestions or their thoughts.

The public’s next access will be 9 a.m. Thursday, when the panel will present its preliminary recommendations at the same location. A final report is due within six weeks, Delk said.

The panel is different from an Urban Land Institute group that came to town last year to studying largely the Assembly Street corridor, he said. That panel had experts from across South Carolina.

City center panel members have been studying Columbia and its challenges for six months. They were provided statistics analyses, mapping information and economic development data.

Besides Rose, the panel includes: Stephen Engblom, senior vice president of San Francisco-based, AECOM, a planning and design firm; Richard J. Dishnica, president of The Dishnica Co. of Point Richmond, Calif.; Dan Conway, director of marketing and economics at Aurora, Colo.-based THK Associates, Inc.; Calvin Gladney, managing partner at Mosiac, a Washington, D.C.-based real estate development firm; Thomas Eitler, vice president at Urban Land Institute in the nation’s capital; Tom Murphy, a senior fellow at the institute; John L. Knott, president of Noisette Co. in Charleston, who specializes in urban redevelopment and green economy; and Amy Barrett, vice president at Charleston’s Permar, Inc., a development firm. She specializes in land use and development patterns.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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