There’s an old adage in city planning and development: Take care of the corners and the middle of the block will take care of itself.
And in a flip of that sentiment, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, often tapped for conferences and lectures on downtown development in the Holy City, famously warned in The State newspaper: “You lose a corner and that virus spreads.”
For architect Tom Savory, a member of the city of Columbia’s Design/Development Review Commission, corners “are the most important part of city, especially the most prominent corners.”
With Columbia in the midst of a $1.3 billion-plus building boom – 80 percent of which is powered by an expanding University of South Carolina – there perhaps is no better time to look at corners.
A study by The State has identified a dozen corners whose development is deemed vital to downtown’s future.
They include corners as notable as the surface parking lots on Gervais Street at Assembly Street – across the street from the S.C. State House – considered one of the most important and busy intersections in the state.
And they can be as modest as a city-owned parking lot at Sumter and Blanding streets that could augment the renaissance that is occurring on Main Street, a block away.
Together, the undeveloped or underdeveloped dozen properties represent the best opportunities to continue downtown’s momentum after the student housing boom, tied to USC’s expanding enrollment, has subsided.
“A city is a cohesive, living body,” Savory said. “And when you fill in the missing pieces, the whole benefits as a result.”
Rock solid proposal
But filling in the most prominent of those missing pieces could prove difficult.
Some of the corners have inherent limitations. Others have owners who have owned the land for decades, are making a good income off it – as is – and are reluctant to sell.
For instance, the lots at Gervais and Assembly streets owned by the Papadea and Capilos families, and a lot on Gervais at Huger Street, across from the Publix grocery store, have been underutilized for years and represent the gateways on the east and west ends of the Vista.
But both owners say they are in no hurry to sell.
“We like being in the parking lot business,” said former Columbia City Council member Jim Papadea, who speaks for the Papadea and Capilos families. “It’s a good business to be in in this town.”
He rents the dozens of spaces by the month to businesses and government during the day, and at night by the space to visitors to Columbia’s ever-more congested entertainment district.
Papadea explained that developers are constantly making offers to build on the property, including “about a dozen” developers wanting to build student housing there.
“But it’s too risky,” he said. “If (the project) doesn’t work out, you could lose the land.”
But the families would entertain a “rock solid” proposal, particularly from the state or the university, Papadea said.
“When the right deal comes along, we’ll know it, and we’ll take it,” he said.
So, too, with Charles Brooks, owner of the 2-acre site across from Publix.
He said he is satisfied with the rental income he is making off two buildings now on part of the property. Another burned some 30 years ago and was never rebuilt.
“I always said when someone came along and gave me twice what it’s worth I would sell it,” he said. “Well, somebody came along and offered me twice what it’s worth, and it scared me so much I didn’t do it.
“It’s been paid for for 25 years almost,” he added. “My return is much higher than most people. And I’m keeping 85 cents on the dollar. If I had money instead of the property, I couldn’t invest it and get the same amount of return. It wouldn’t make sense for me economically.”
Brooks said he plans on keeping the property “and passing on to my grandchildren.” But he added with a chuckle, “everything is always for sale.”
So could the city force folks like Brooks and Papadea to sell to ramp up development and improve the downtown tax base?
“I think it would be political suicide,” said Ben Johnson, an analyst with the CBRE commercial real estate firm. “You can’t just take property like that. And to buy it, the price would be so high over market value that there would be a backlash from the voters.”
Land, capacity and funding
But there are some things the city can do to make the land more lucrative for development – most notably develop more parking.
With more buildings going up and surface parking quickly disappearing, developers will have to build their own very expensive parking garages to make land purchases viable, or buy lease space in a city garage – as the new Hyatt Place Downtown hotel and the Aloft hotel, now under construction, did at the Lady Street garage.
“The Lady Street garage has really helped development in the Vista,” said Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corp., which encourages and guides investment in the Vista and other areas of downtown. “And if there was another city parking garage, it would really help those other lots.”
But there is presently a deficit in parking both in the Vista and on Main Street, according to city parking director John Spade. And while plans are being formulated for two or three more garages in those areas, the first priority are garages the city is committed to building as part of the redevelopment of the old S.C. State Hospital campus on Bull Street.
“It’s about finding land, capacity and funding,” Spade said.
Johnson and Delk also noted that for downtown’s development to keep moving forward, there will have to be an influx of good jobs outside of the university, in industry sectors such as insurance.
“The next round of big stuff is going to take something else,” Delk said.
Johnson said those jobs need to be lucrative enough to retain the young professionals who are most likely to live downtown.
“Multi-family development is driven by good jobs,” he said. “And Columbia right now doesn’t have a good job story to tell.”