Redevelopment

Experts: Columbia needs panel to create vibrant core

cleblanc@thestate.comFebruary 14, 2013 

Because Columbia is a city of islands that don’t work together well, the community needs a broad-based redevelopment commission to help reach the goal of becoming an enticing, walkable place to live and visit, a national panel of experts said Thursday.

The commission would be able to leverage financing options, purchase land and generally push through obstacles that get in the way of Columbia reaching its goal of becoming a great city, said Richard Dishnica, an urban developer in the San Francisco Bay area.

“In your community,” Dishnica told about 100 Columbia-area leaders at the Metropolitan Convention Center, “you’ve done a lot of planning. The real keys ... are results.”

Stephen Engblom, a San Francisco planner and urban designer, drew chuckles from the audience when he showed a post-Civil War street plan of Columbia. “You have a plan that’s 140 years old. For the first century, it worked really well.”

Others on the nine-person, all-volunteer panel from the Urban Land Institute said the community has to partner with many groups, but especially USC and the S.C. Transportation Department. Most of Columbia’s thoroughfares belong to the state agency. And the university is an engine for research dollars, innovation in business and a multicultural, skilled population that often leaves to find opportunities elsewhere.

Columbia also has to decide what kind of city it wants to be: one that focuses on the strengths nature bestowed, such as the rivers and Congaree National Swamp; a university city; a center of government; or an entrepreneurial city.

But solutions come down to the people who make them, said former Pittsburgh, Pa., mayor Tom Murphy.

“It’s always about leadership,” Murphy said. “It’s always about who’s willing to take the risks.

“The riverfront could be a place of magic. Don’t just put a trail along it,” said Murphy, citing his river-city’s resurgence from a poster child of urban flight to a hallmark of redevelopment.

After losing 500,000 residents during the decades between 1970 and 1990, Pittsburgh spent $140 million to purchase a riverfront steel mill and convert it into a thriving district, Murphy said.

He joked that the loss of 20 percent of Pittsburgh’s population is “why there are so many Steelers fans all over America.”

The panel’s advice is part of its preliminary report released after its members spent two days in Columbia and studied the city for several weeks in advance of their arrival from California, Colorado, Washington, D.C., and Charleston.

It’s the first time that Columbia’s often-competing business districts and neighborhoods have joined to find solutions for the city center, said Fred Delk, director of the Columbia Development Corp., one of the panel’s sponsors.

The final report is due in about six weeks.

Calvin Gladney, a Washington, D.C., developer specializing in urban revitalization, advised that Columbia should “Think big. Think transformational,” or continue to be outstripped by capital cities like Raleigh and Austin, Texas.

“Establish a sense of urgency, Gladney said. “You need to start doing this stuff now.”

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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