Revitalization slowly spreads on West Columbia riverfront

‘It’s the best-kept secret in town’

tflach@thestate.comMarch 18, 2013 

  • About this series

    This is the first in an occasional series looking at changes and trends in some Columbia-area neighborhoods.

— Billie Shaw-Hopkins is looking for a home near the riverfront in West Columbia even though it probably will require plenty of sweat to update it.

The area is her choice because “I see it as up and coming,” the insurance-office manager says.

She is eager to settle in the area, home to older cottages, rental duplexes, apartments and modest residences near riverfront homes that are among the priciest in the Midlands.

Residents who already call those neighborhoods home — the Mill Village, the Avenues, and others bounded by the river on the east, Knox Abbott Boulevard on the south, 12th Street on the west and Meeting Street on the north — say the area is an overlooked jewel.

After a decade of sporadic rehabilitation, the area of nearly 500 homes is starting to shine.

“It’s the best-kept secret in town,” retired Richland 2 teacher Carolyn Murphy said. “It has been completely underappreciated.”

Murphy has watched the changes unfold for the past 20 years, settling into her third home in the area after modernizing two others that she now rents.

The area sometimes is called the West Vista for its proximity to the shopping and entertainment district just across the Congaree River in downtown Columbia. It’s mostly in West Columbia, with a slice in adjoining Cayce.

The facelift is finished on some blocks while others are in transition and more await a start on rejuvenation.

Bobby George, leader of the West Side Neighborhood Association, describes the metamorphosis as “slow-hab.”

Retailers are joining the trend.

Cafe Strudel, a mainstay on State Street since 1997, is settling into a larger new home a few blocks south of its long-time address. “I didn’t want to leave here,” owner Trip Turbyfill said, citing his restaurant’s popularity with locals.

It is in a former woodworking shop whose transformation required removal of plenty of sawdust.

Former state commerce secretary Joe Taylor is surprised at the steady inquiries on his renovation of a nearby floral shop for offices and stores..

“I’ve never gotten calls on property like this in my life,” he said.

More to come

Development of the Riverwalk by both cities is credited with setting the stage for the renaissance under way.

The two-mile path on the river, with mini-parks along it, is slated to be extended north and south in coming months.

Planners are recommending West Columbia take extra steps to polish its riverfront, including historic preservation guidelines, more landscaping and a shuttle across the river into the Vista.

But efforts to expand a park through acquisition of a closed restaurant along the riverfront have gone nowhere.

Farther south, Cayce is looking at moving its City Hall near the riverfront.

City leaders also are eager to develop a park devoted to the history of Native Americans who lived there 12,000 years ago. But nothing is imminent.

One question hangs over the area: What’s going to be placed on a prime empty four-acre tract near the Gervais Street bridge? Now, it’s mostly a parking area for those headed for a riverfront park where concerts are held.

West Columbia leaders continue to weigh ideas for commercial development on the site that the city owns.

“We want something that can lend itself to vibrant activity after dark,” Mayor Joe Owens said.

What happens there will “set the tone” for the future of the area, said Murphy, who lives a half-block from the site.

Too slow or just right?

Some residents are frustrated that revitalization isn’t occurring faster, particularly on blocks with aging homes that show signs of dilapidation.

“I wish more people would fix up, just do the basics,” said Debra Ann Thornley, who is updating her home as well as a pair of rental residences nearby.

Former West Columbia city councilwoman Marsha Moore likes the convenience of nearby shopping and entertainment but is “very impatient with the slow pace of change” that she says is deterring further renewal.

Some developers blame what they say is timidity and lack of vision among landowners and officials that dampens redevelopment.

“Everybody knows it’s a jewel, but everybody is scared of putting it in the setting needed,” said Will Batson, a commercial real estate broker who moved into a Cayce riverfront neighborhood in 2010, “There’s nobody taking a risk.”

Taylor predicts it will start moving faster as recognition spreads about bargains available, cheaper tax and utility bills and less red tape required for redevelopment than in other communities.

For now, the area is “the affordable Shandon,” Cayce councilwoman Tara Almond said, referring to the popular and pricier downtown neighborhood in Columbia.

Some in the area are content with the gradual transition, saying anything faster could disrupt sections with longtime residents who enjoy tight-knit relationships among themselves.

The slow but steady renovation “shows times are getting better,” homeowner Jay Fox said.

Meanwhile, neighborhood leader George is a self-appointed ambassador promoting the area.

The west side of the river, he says, is “the place to be right now.”

Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.

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