An apartment complex is being proposed for another vacant corner lot in downtown Columbia, filling a key gateway to the city.
The four-story apartment complex, being proposed by a developer out of Orlando, Fla., would sit at the corner of Huger and Senate streets, behind the Vista McDonald’s.
The complex — significantly, not geared toward students — would sit across Gervais Street from the Kline City Center project. That project, announced two weeks ago, includes 280 apartments and a hotel.
The new project, among four apartment complexes announced in recent months to fill in development gaps downtown, is part of a larger apartment boom taking place throughout Columbia.
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Filling in those gaps is going to be “huge” for Columbia, said Ben Johnson, research director for commercial real estate firm CBRE|Columbia, which has been involved in some of the deals.
“You’re finally filling in some of the really high-value tracts,” he said.
That is important because the development is taking advantage of existing roads and water and sewer lines. That will help with the city’s tax base and support public services, Johnson said.
The newest complex won unanimous rezoning approval from Columbia’s Planning Commission this week. It still must face the city’s Design Development Review Commission, which will ensure that it conforms with design standards in the Innovista District.
Few details about the project were included in documents submitted to the Planning Commission.
Efforts to reach developer Brian Ray of Ray Design Development on Tuesday were unsuccessful. However, Ray also is planning a five-story apartment complex on North Main Street.
More specific plans will have to be submitted before design approval. The Design Development Review Commission is expected to discuss the project at its Aug. 14 meeting.
‘Improve the cool factor’
Housing development in downtown Columbia started gaining momentum in the early 2000s with a variety of condo projects planned throughout the area.
Development was on the cusp of a boom just as the recession hit in late 2007 and early 2008, when “the whole world changed,” said Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corp., which guides and encourages investment in the Vista and other parts of the city.
“We were feeling this before the economy turned in 2008,” he said. “It’s like ... suddenly — in the last six months — it’s right back up where it was.”
The development revival means there could be between 4,000 and 5,000 people living on the Main Street and in the Vista within the next few years — up from 1,300 today, Delk said.
The first wave of development to come back after the recession was student housing. Now, however, with thousands of student apartments under development and expected to open over the next two years, the trend has shifted to traditional apartments, Delk said.
Developers expect retail to pick up next.
“What we’re seeing now is national retail tenants are finally becoming more attracted to Columbia and are finally coming to the market,” said Bruce Harper, president and broker-in-charge of the NAI Avant commercial firm, which recently renovated and moved its headquarters to a historic building in the Vista.
“(Desirable retailers) typically travel in packs,” said Todd Avant, chief executive of NAI Avant.
Starting with Mast General Store on Main Street three years ago, Columbia has gained steam in attracting national retailers, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Urban Outfitters. “That really puts Columbia on the radar” for other stores, Avant said.
Many of the apartment projects being planned include space for retail, Avant noted, including two new hotels planned in the Vista, The Hub student housing project on Main Street and the Kline project.
Those developments are likely to attract national and regional retailers Columbia has not seen in its market before, Harper said.
“It’s going to really improve the cool factor in terms of young professionals wanting to live here,” Avant said. “Columbia wasn’t quite there; I see that really changing in the next few years.”
Columbia has an opportunity to create its own “cultural feel” downtown, Delk said. “All good cities” have a distinct and attractive feel, he said, citing Asheville and Austin as examples.
“You know how much better it is to go down Main Street and see all the activity? The whole city center is going to feel like that,” he said.
As the trend continues, “downtown is (going to become) more of a destination than ever.”