‘Reality Check’ aims to help the Midlands get a grip on growth

10/19/2013 10:00 PM

10/19/2013 9:24 PM

Planning for growth

The Midlands – a roughly circular, eight-county area stretching from Newberry to St. Matthews, Swansea to Camden, Lexington to Sumter – is expected to grow to 1.31 million people by 2040 from 860,000 today. The number of the jobs in the area is expected to swell by 160,000.

Columbia city elections are about two weeks away and will be followed in December by a vote on a new form of government. And in this political season many people are asking if the city and the region it anchors are planning properly for that future.

“Where are you going to put all those jobs and people?” said Grant Jackson, senior vice president for community development at the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

One step in getting a grip on growth begins Tuesday with Reality Check Midlands, a 300-person, invitation-only planning exercise at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center intended to prepare the region and its urban core for the future. A public meeting will be held Thursday at The Zone at Williams-Brice Stadium to vet the ideas those 300 invited guests – including planners, developers and government officials – come up with.

The event is sponsored by Urban Land Institute-South Carolina and will mirror events already held in Greenville and Charleston.

The planning will center on controlling sprawl, preserving green spaces, improving transportation systems, siting new schools and growing water and sewer systems. The session is to have a regional focus. But one thing is certain: The new residents are going to impact downtown Columbia and the region equally.

“People live in Blythewood, work in Camden, enjoy the amenities of downtown Columbia and go to the lake,” Jackson said. “We really are a region. We don’t live, work and play in the same place. We’re mobile.”

The concept of regional cooperation – which always has been a challenge in the Midlands – was spurred on by the loss of Southwest Airlines to Greenville-Spartanburg in 2010.

Charleston, Columbia and Greenville-Spartanburg each had courted the discount carrier for years.

Charleston was a slam dunk because of the announcement that Boeing was building a plant in North Charleston. So the final slot came down to the Midlands and the Upstate.

When the Southwest delegation arrived for a final tour, they were met first by Lexington County officials and business leaders in Lexington, and the next day by Richland County officials and business leaders in Columbia. But when they arrived in the Upstate they were met by a united delegation from 11 counties in a single ballroom. The cohesiveness in Greenville was a deciding factor in the Upstate landing that deal.

How Columbia’s city leaders view regionalism – and their willingness to plan and make decisions within its context – should be important to voters, said Leighton Lord, a Columbia attorney and former S.C. attorney general candidate who is on the Reality Check steering committee.

“Whoever can best foster and promote regional cooperation is the better leader for our city,” he said.

GROWING PAINS RIGHT NOW

Already the growth is starting to cause some strain in the Columbia area:

•  Historic buildings are being torn down or threatened as developers seek new downtown land to build on.
•  Protecting a growing University of South Carolina student population has become a serious issue with the recent string of violence in Five Points.
•  The mix of pedestrians and cars on the city’s busy, highway-like streets has become a concern.
•  And some worry how mega developments like Bull Street and the downtown student housing boom will affect the city.

“There are planning processes in place that are pushing these things forward at the same time,” said Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corp., which encourages and guides development in The Vista and other downtown areas.

He noted that the city, county and Historic Columbia Foundation, after years of seeing historic buildings razed for new developments, have embarked on a new strategy to work with property owners to reuse the buildings.

They have sweetened tax credits for rehabilitating the structures, said Delk, who recently brokered the sale of the Vista’s Palmetto Compress warehouse, which was threatened with demolition to make way for student housing.

Letters are being sent to owners of buildings that are eligible for landmark status. And the city is considering a delay ordinance on demolition permits for those structures.

The city, meanwhile, is struggling to develop a plan to react to a string of violent acts in Five Points, which includes a possible partnership with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department. How to address those challenges already has become a political issue leading up to the Nov. 5 city elections.

Also, USC, Richland County and the Federal Transit Administration have embarked on a $4.65 million effort to make a four-block section of Assembly Street from Blossom to Pendleton Street safer. People – mostly USC students – make about 3,000 crossings of the street in that area in a 12-hour period. That number could swell to 12,000 from 9,000 when the new Moore School of Business opens west of Assembly.

Medians are being widened, bump-outs are being built at intersections and on-street parking has been eliminated, all of which enhances pedestrian safety.

The city would like to continue the work north to Elmwood Avenue and south to Rosewood Drive, but that’s an estimated $100 million project, Delk said.

“Funding is an issue,” he said.

Bump-outs and other pedestrian enhancements also are being completed on Gervais Street in the Vista. But Delk said the city still is searching for ways to connect downtown’s shopping, dining, entertainment and business districts.

“The Vista to Main Street to the State House and USC – and Five Points is just a few blocks away,” he said.

Renewed focus on planning

Krista Hampton, the city’s director of planning, said that planning efforts in the city slowed in the past few years because of staffing and budget concerns during the worst economic downturn in decades.

The city had hired consultants to formulate development plans for north Columbia as well as the east side of the city, which had been an expensive exercise.

“Now we’re really beginning to ramp up our planning,” she said.

Last year, the department updated the Columbia Plan: 2018 – the comprehensive plan for the city of Columbia, which provides a strategic 10-year vision, including objectives, goals and policies to help guide the city’s development and growth.

It’s composed of nine elements: demographics, community facilities, housing, natural resources, cultural resources, economic development, transportation, future land use and priority investment. These elements are supplemented with a policy matrix, which is a quick overview, ranking and timetable for all policies recommended within the plan.

Also, the city has embarked on planning for two growing city corridors – Rosewood Drive and the Devine Street/Jackson Boulevard area known as Cross Hill.

Residents in the Fort Jackson Boulevard and Devine Street areas gathered Thursday evening to see proposals for managing the area’s growth. Traffic in the area has increased since a Whole Foods-based shopping center opened there last year. And last week, plans were revealed for a PetSmart, a Marshall’s clothing store and a Michael’s craft store on the next block of Devine.

Residents mostly wanted to make the area pedestrian-friendly with trail systems, safe pedestrian connections within and adjacent to neighborhoods and bump outs at intersections, which shorten the time it takes to cross the streets.

Similar plans are developing or envisioned for the Rosewood area and Garners Ferry Road.

But the biggest step, Hampton said, is a complete rewrite of the city’s zoning laws – which haven’t been overhauled since 1977. That process is expected to start at the beginning of the year.

“Which is why the Reality Check is so important,” she said. “We will have a vision that is regional that we can fold right into our land-use plan and zoning ordinances.”

For the Reality Check’s Lord, that blend of regional and urban visions is the key to the future as the region grows and lines blur.

He noted that the chief roaster at the new Starbucks Coffee roasting plant in nearby rural Calhoun County lives in Columbia’s Vista.

“Where he can get a good cup of coffee,” Lord said.

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