Is closing Columbia’s Harden Street the answer?

Police chief would like to consider it, but others need convincing

10/12/2012 12:00 AM

10/12/2012 6:57 AM

For a couple of hours on Friday and Saturday nights, four blocks of Harden Street become Columbia’s version of Bourbon Street or Beale Street.

Thousands of young people parade up and down the sidewalks. Some bounce from bar to bar. Many are underage and gather on sidewalks or around the fountain to socialize and be a part of the scene. And scores of cars, trucks and motorcycles cruise the street.

As city officials, Five Points leaders and nearby neighborhoods grapple with solutions to make the area more safe for late-night crowds, one option being discussed is closing those four blocks of Harden Street for a few late-night hours on weekend nights.

“It’s not necessary seven nights a week,” said Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott. “It would be a few hours on Friday and Saturday, and in the winter it may not be necessary at all.”

However, it will take some convincing to get others to buy into the idea.

Missy Gentry, an assistant city manager who is working on a Five Points pedestrian safety plan, said the idea has not been well-received because many fear it would only increase the late-night crowds.

“If you closed the street, you give the impression that it’s turned into an open air party,” Gentry said. “It would turn it into St. Paddy’s Day every weekend.”

Since the most recent outbreak of violence on Sept. 23, when gunshots and two mob assaults occurred within a two-hour period, many people have been thinking about solutions to Five Points’ problems. For most hours of the day, the area is tame as shoppers visit stores and people eat at the restaurants.

On weekend nights, however, Five Points is the top destination for thousands of young people, mostly those between the ages of 18 and 25. The busiest hours are between midnight and 2 a.m., when most bars close. After the USC/Georgia football game, more than 8,000 people flocked to the entertainment district that sits at the doorstep of USC’s campus and is within walking distance of two other colleges.

Among the top issues that need to be addressed are loitering, managing sidewalk space and cruising.

If Harden Street is closed to traffic, cruising would be eliminated, Scott said. Then, pedestrians could spread out, relieving the overcrowded sidewalks.

The idea has been proposed to the Five Points Association once before, but the group’s board of directors turned it down, said Merritt McHaffie, the association’s executive director.

At the time, the group did not feel it was necessary. McHaffie said the association is open to the idea now, but board members would want to see a detailed plan.

One thing that would not work, McHaffie said, is fencing off the district like the association does during its annual St. Patrick’s Day festival. It would be expensive and time-consuming, she said.

“You just can’t put a fence around Five Points in a few minutes,” she said.

The priority for the association is to see that local businesses succeed, McHaffie said. The businesses would need to be assured that people coming would go inside bars and restaurants to spend money.

Creating a pedestrians-only zone during certain hours on Harden Street would take cooperation from multiple interests.

Harden Street is a state highway, so the S.C. Department of Transportation would have to sign off on the plan, said David Brewer, the city’s traffic engineer.

Engineers would have to plan routes for emergency vehicles and figure out how to keep traffic from overrunning residential streets, Brewer said.

Police would have to man barricades that block traffic, taking officers off the foot patrols in the entertainment district, Brewer said.

“It’s not just a flip-a-switch thing,” he said.

Harden Street is a main thoroughfare for fire trucks and ambulances.

“When we call for (an ambulance), it comes straight down Harden,” said Russ Bell, manager of the Finlay House, a senior citizen high-rise complex on the corner of Blossom and Harden streets.

While a blocked street might slow down emergency response times, Bell said an alternate route would be an option. Already, the cruising and masses of pedestrians create obstacles for the ambulances and fire trucks, he said.

Residents in the surrounding neighborhoods of Martin Luther King Park, Lower Waverly, University Hill, Wales Garden, Shandon and Old Shandon would not want overflow traffic spilling onto their residential streets.

“Would that just push people into the surrounding neighborhoods and cause more problems?” said Andy Marion, president of Wales Garden Neighborhood Association. “Would there be parking problems? Where would the cars go?”

Still, Marion said he would be open to the idea if it came with a smooth plan.

Kathryn Fenner, a resident in University Hill, said that closing Harden Street for Friday and Saturday nights would be embracing the festival atmosphere. Already, neighbors have problems with intoxicated young people causing vandalism and other problems as they walk through the neighborhoods to their apartments and dorms.

“I don’t think you want to have a red light district, if you will, surrounded by neighborhoods,” she said. “It sends the message in the wrong direction.”

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