August 8, 2014

Unique student living brings life to key ‘hub’ of Columbia revival

Move-in at The Hub at Columbia started Aug. 1 for 850 college students and young professionals who will call the 21-story Palmetto Center -- a former office complex -- home. Most will move in next week, bringing ‘a whole new dimension to the area.’

A decades-long push to add a vibrant residential component to Columbia’s Main Street takes a major step next week when The Hub at Columbia fully opens its doors.

Nearly 850 mostly University of South Carolina college students and young professionals are moving into the 21-story Palmetto Center, converted over the past 18 months from office space to luxury apartments in a $40 million major renovation. The majority will move in Aug. 14 and 15.

It is a tipping point for Main Street, which has been undergoing major redevelopment since Mast General Store opened there three years ago. Since then, the street, which was once a daytime-only destination mainly for office workers, has been slowly transforming to add an emerging nightlife scene.

Adding hundreds of new round-the-clock residents is expected to keep the momentum rolling forward.

“There’s a lot of excitement among the merchant community,” said Matt Kennell, president and CEO of the City Center Partnership, a 12-year-old urban management and planning group formed to promote public space, economic development and retail recruitment in the city’s core. “We think it adds to the diversity and brings a whole new dimension to the area.”

The project has been at 100 percent occupancy for several months, said Michelle Carswell, property manager for Chicago-based Core Campus, which owns The Hub. The company is “thrilled with the immense interest” the ultra-modern apartments have generated, she said.

The new residents who will fill the complex’s 848 beds in 260 suites will more than double the number of people who live on Main Street and the public excitement is palpable:

• About 100 Hub residents who paid extra to move in early on Aug. 1 were met by bankers from at least two downtown financial institutions who helped the youngsters unload their cars and haul their belongings upstairs to their new apartments.
• A few local businesses had stations set up in the former office tower, even as the final throes of construction were still underway, giving out gift cards and promotional discounts to the early arrivals.
• A dozen new restaurants have opened in the past year as renovations moved forward. And a crowd of banks have consolidated their presence at the ground zero of the city core, Main Street — all in anticipation of new people coming.

‘It’s new ground’

But for all the excitement a large wave of new residents brings to the downtown – and for all the work put in over the years to make it finally happen – no one knows for sure how Main Street Columbia will be affected by having pedestrians who now call the area home.

It’s the first time since S.C. Electric & Gas left the Palmetto Center for new digs in Cayce in 2009 that the building will be fully occupied as the city swaps 1,000 daytime office workers for 848 round-the-clock residents.

“It’s new ground for us,” said Kennell.

Safety issues have been raised with increasing car and pedestrian traffic. And safety of the residents living in the complex also was an issue during the project’s planning stages. The company addressed those concerns by using electronic card access, security cameras in common areas of the building and upgraded lighting in the parking garage. They also have said they plan to staff the building with resident assistants 24 hours a day.

Despite the concerns, the benefits of having new residents on Main Street are undeniable, many say.

Like other downtown enthusiasts, Kennell has taken the time to get out on the streets in the new downtown, eat at some of the sidewalk cafes and take in — if not revel in — all the arriving new faces and new levels of activity.

Bourbon Whiskey Bar, for instance, is one of the new businesses on Main Street in the 1200 block near the state Capitol. On a recent middle of the week night, it was brimming over with patrons – an unlikely sight on the street just a couple of years ago.

“I think it’s an incredibly positive, good thing for Main Street and the whole city center,” said Tom Prioreschi. “The amount of energy those kids, those young people will bring is just fantastic.”

Prioreschi, the founder of Capitol Places, an apartment rental company headquartered on Main Street, is one of the earliest promoters of living downtown and now owns and manages several properties that house several hundred people in the Main Street area, including the former Tapps building located at Main and Blanding streets.

Prioreschi said he could feel the fount of new energy in the downtown Aug. 1 when those first new residents moved into The Hub at Columbia.

Pretty soon, parents will be visiting their kids at the complex, so hotels will be fuller, Prioreschi noted. And a busier downtown area is attractive and causes more people to want to spend time there, so restaurants will be fuller, too, Prioreschi said.

And of course, there are the students themselves. “USC students are a great, wonderful thing for Columbia,” Prioreschi said. “They bring energy – and this is a heck of a big swath of them.”

A turning point

Prioreshi’s leadership push for downtown living reaches back at least 15 years. At that time, there was little more than the Columbia Museum of Art and Capitol Places apartment rentals stirring the pot for more people in the downtown area.

In 2002, however, the City Center Partnership started up and put its Yellow Shirts downtown guide program in place, which “helped a lot,” Prioreschi said.

But Mast General Store’s opening in May 2011 was the true tipping point for Main Street development, Prioreschi maintains.

“We were struggling — Main Street was struggling. Let’s face it. We’ve had so many good things, really, since Mast General Store opened,” the Columbia business leader said.

Developments include the Agape senior care complex; Michael’s Catering and Good Life Cafe, which capitalize on the popularity and vibrancy of al fresco dining; the Brazilian Cowboy steakhouse; Something Special Florist; and a variety of others. Prioreschi counted more than 30 new businesses that have opened on Main Street since May 2011, and that’s a turning point, he said.

“It’s self sustaining economic development now,” Prioreschi said. “When you get to a certain level, it becomes a buzz city or a buzz area, and Main Street has reached that tipping point.”

Residential development — Capitol Places’ primary focus — is strengthened in the downtown by commercial development, Prioreschi said, but both are driven by energy.

“When you have energy, people want to live there,” Prioreschi said, and The Hub at Columbia brings a tremendous amount of energy to the city, he said. “This is win, win, win, win, win. Nobody I know is not excited about it.”

It all connects

New downtown residents will find many of the necessities of life already in place and nearby in downtown. Main Street already harbors such rudimentary essential services as a pharmacy, a dry cleaners, a tailor, a shoe repair shop, a movie theater and an ice cream store.

In the Vista nearby, there is a Publix grocery store, pizza restaurant, a performing arts theater and nightlife. And, in the estimation of former Columbia mayor Bob Coble, it all connects.

“I think you have to look at downtown as Main Street, the Vista and the riverfront,” Coble said. “Everyone who invests in Columbia, looks at it that way. It’s been a decades-long effort and I congratulate Mayor Benjamin for the tremendous job he’s done with it.”

Coble, who served as mayor from 1990 to 2010, said everything from infrastructure to office and commercial development to retail establishment and finally residential development have been critical to getting downtown Columbia where it is now.

Infrastructure development, according to Coble, includes the streetscaping on Gervais and Main streets and the development of the Columbia Museum of Art, the Three Rivers Greenway and the Colonial Life Center. All have been critical contributors to the area’s quality of life offerings, and were spurred by public investment, he said.

Downtown Columbia is the hub of the entire region, said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who is credited by Coble and others for picking up the push for downtown development once he took office in 2012.

In the mid-1990s, Benjamin served on Columbia Downtown Business Association, forerunner of the City Center Partnership and the city planning commission from 1995-1997.

“Even then, the city was focused on trying to create that environment downtown,” Benjamin noted. Capitol Places and City Center Partnership have done groundbreaking work in putting in place important pieces of the downtown puzzle, Benjamin said, along with the cultural commitment of the Columbia Museum of Art.

The art museum sits catty cornered to The Hub, which adjoins the Marriott hotel that also has undergone a major upgrade, and gives an entrance to The Hub.

“This is a long-term strategy, that of late, we’ve been investing everything we can in trying to develop an urban core,” Benjamin said. “I believe every person in the city and the region is emotionally bound to their Main Street. If Main Street is dead, people think their town or region is dead.

“If their Main Street is alive, vibrant, and exciting things are happening, they feel very differently, as do visitors. This has been a long-term play and a lot of people have been working on it.”

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