October 24, 2013

Strong city central to planners’ visions

The 2040 wish list for future development in the Midlands is for a strengthened city sitting at its center, with few new roads, the dawn of real mass transit and more green living.

The 2040 wish list for future development in the Midlands is for a strengthened city sitting at its center, with few new roads, the dawn of real mass transit and more green living.

Columbia got a nod from planners and the public alike Thursday based on surveys, statistics and discussions 18 months in the making designed to detail a vision residents want to see play out in the eight-county region over the next 30 years. The community is planning for nearly half a million new residents projected during that time frame.

More than 300 community members from a cross-section of the region came together Tuesday for a Reality Check “Game Day” to develop growth plans. Those ideas were then unveiled and voted on during a public session Thursday.

“There was in every single plan that was developed … support for increased growth in the city” said Stephen Stansbery, of Kimley-Horn and Associates, Raleigh, N.C.-based engineering and planning consultants that analyzed the Reality Check Midlands survey results from Tuesday’s Game Day exercises.

“Clearly, if there’s one thing everyone could agree on, it was that the core of the region is important … and continued investments in that region are going to be important moving forward.”

The Urban Land Institute, which conducted the Midlands Reality Check initiative, also has conducted the program in Charleston, Greenville and Charlotte. In a sign that Columbia leaders are ready to cross regional lines and work together, planners said Columbia’s session was more successful.

“One of the things that stood out is the sheer level of participation,” Stansbery said. “We’ve done this in much larger metropolitan centers with not as much participation. There is true passion in this region for at least engaging in the dialogue about what we really want to be next and how we respond to the challenges before us.”

Heather Foley, Urban Land Institute South Carolina executive director, said: “I’m overwhelmed by the enthusiasm. There’s an unprecedented level of investment amongst the public sector and having both that buy-in from the private and public sector really is a true testament to the commitment to push the vision forward and see it implemented and grow.”

The top guiding principles put forward by residents from the eight-county Midlands area were support for enhanced regional transportation connection, which could include improvements to roadways, public transportation, rail and air service.

Coming in as a close second guiding principle was promoting growth in the region that supports more walking, biking and ultimately enhanced public transportation services such as high performance buses and rail.

The Columbia region has neither and public policy has been shaky at best in developing high-quality solutions.

The city of Columbia was not the only focus planners and the public gave attention. The respondents made it clear they also want other established cities and towns in the region to be made stronger by adding jobs there and more residents. Those locales include Lexington, Sumter, Camden and Newberry.

Nearly half the poll, 49 percent, said they want multiple centers of growth, and 40 percent said they want compact urban growth patterns to rule.

One of the strongest outcomes wished for in the survey was that cities and towns be vibrant places where people want to live. Respondents also strongly said they want those cities and towns to feel and be safe, and be places where people can get good jobs within a reasonable commute.

People said insufficient cooperation among leaders posed the biggest hindrance to achieving the kind of region they want in the future, followed by lack of job creation, an unprepared work force and lack of access to alternative forms of transportation.

“I thought the results were really interesting,” said Andy Smith, Nickelodeon Theatre executive director in downtown Columbia. “When you get a diverse group of people together, you’re going to have a lot of different opinions.

“Obviously, there is a lot of consensus around the importance of putting some attention toward increasing density in the city and in the urban core, which is great. I just think, really, the only difference is how much attention we put into other parts of the community as well, and to what degree we do that.”

Compact urban growth that supports walking and biking had no shortage of advocates in the survey Thursday or the discussions that took place Tuesday at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, where 300 people gathered in groups for hours to map out their collective visions for future growth, which experts say must start now.

“Our group talked a lot about transit, greenways, and making sure that we try to avoid sprawl,” said Krista Hampton, Columbia planning and development services director.

Harry Mashburn, who owns Mashburn Construction with his two sons, Lee and Paul, has offices downtown. He participated in both the sessions this week and has active construction projects underway downtown, including The Hub, a housing development in the Palmetto Center, a conference center and the Agape project, a multi-use renovation of some key Main Street buildings.

“Our offices are downtown because we chose to be downtown,” Mashburn said. “We are big believers in downtown. We are excited about our downtown, but I think our downtown needs so much more development. We have so many great old buildings that need to be developed into something else.”

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