The transformation of Greene Street in Columbia’s Vista into a narrow, tree-lined thoroughfare linking USC to the riverfront could begin in March.
The revamped Greene Street is designed to be the heart of a new campus for the University of South Carolina, complete with a landmark plaza across from the entrance to the Colonial Life Arena.
The project, nearly a decade in the planning, is the first major construction to break ground using Richland County’s penny-on-the-dollar sales tax for transportation improvements.
The new Greene Street corridor is expected to provide a seamless extension of the university into what are now industrial areas in the Vista, where land has remained undeveloped despite being within view of the state capitol.
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The city’s real estate and development community is eager to see activity, said Fred Delk, director of the Columbia Development Corp., which helps guide development in the Vista. Delk said ultimately the project will expand what people consider the Vista to be.
The Greene Street improvements moved to the top of the penny sales-tax list after the university approached County Council earlier this year, offering its own money to get the design and engineering work done so the project would be ready to go, Councilman Paul Livingston said. The university will be repaid from the penny fund.
The first phase of the work is a three-block stretch of landscaping along Greene, between Assembly and Gadsden streets.
The centerpiece will be Foundation Square, at Lincoln and Greene streets, facing the front of the arena.
The square is designed as a gathering place for students who might lunch at a patio on one corner or hang out under a piece of sculpture on another.
The raised plaza alone will be planted with 121 trees, county officials said, a mix of ginko, black tulip, shumard oak, bald cypress and fast-growing kwanzan cherry, covered in pink blossoms.
“It’s going to feel more like a park than a street,” Delk said.
The $10 million “phase 1” of the project is the prelude to extending Greene Street from the Horseshoe, the center of USC’s traditional campus, across Huger Street and on to the Congaree River. The change is designed to create a mile-long corridor that will open the area for new business and residential development.
The extension, “phase 2” of the project, requires building a bridge over railroad tracks where Greene Street dead-ends now. The bridge would take bicyclists, pedestrians and cars safety over the tracks.
The bridge and extension are critical to riverfront development, community leaders say. The final piece of roadwork is to finish out Williams Street, which now runs parallel to Huger Street in fits and starts along the Congaree River.
According to a city and university plan from 2007, Williams is to be extended through what is now undeveloped property belonging to Columbia’s Guignard family and run alongside a 70-something-acre Waterfront Park, to be built on Guignard land where Greene Street crosses Huger. The park is envisioned as the new gem of Columbia’s downtown and USC’s extended campus.
“Once you connect the dots, you’ve really got something that’s going to generate a lot of public use going forward. Forever,” said Bill Boyd, a prominent Columbia lawyer involved in planning for USC’s riverfront development since 2006.
The first phase of the Greene Street corridor should be completed by fall 2016, said Chris Gossett, Richland County’s deputy director of transportation.
USC Development Foundation director Russ Meekins said the streetscaping project will be done in conjunction with construction of two university-affiliated dorms, housing 880 students, between Blossom and Greene streets.
Add that to the privately built dorms announced nearby and, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said, “we’re talking probably 3,000 new residents down there being connected to Foundation Square.” Benjamin was a citizen member of a waterfront steering committee before he was elected mayor.
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Wide sidewalks, bike lanes
The plaza was part of the highly touted Sasaki Plan, a planning guide commissioned by USC for the redevelopment of some 500 acres between campus and the riverfront, where the university is expanding to the west. The Watertown, Mass., firm first released the document in July 2007.
Greene Street, as part of its new character, will be narrowed from four traffic lanes to two, with the plaza atop a gentle, three-foot incline. Though the plaza will be intersected by the two lanes of traffic, the intent is for people walking, riding bikes or skateboarding to have the right-of-way.
The prospect of narrowing Greene is “causing a little heartburn” among those concerned about traffic flow in the area, Meekins acknowledged.
In addition to narrowing Greene, one block of Lincoln Street may taper to two lanes as well, said Meekins and Rob Perry, the county’s transportation director.
Meekins noted that the planned railroad bridge in the project’s second phase will provide a new outlet onto Huger Street, dispersing traffic when people leave big events at the arena or the nearby convention center on Lincoln Street. Construction of the bridge could get under way in 2019, Gossett said.
It’s the bridge that has Livingston, Boyd and Benjamin anticipating new growth and development.
The lack of a Greene Street bridge “has been basically the stopper in the bottle for everything west of the railroad,” Boyd said. Most of the land available for development there is privately owned, he added, meaning it would generate property-tax revenue for the city, county and Richland School District 1.
USC spokesman Wes Hickman and the mayor touted plans for wide sidewalks and bike lanes.
“We’re making significant investments in our walk-bike plan, and this dovetails directly into a plan to make Columbia a city where pedestrians and cyclists can find friendly infrastructure,” Benjamin said.
Added Hickman: “That’s kind of what we’re moving toward with our general transportation plan around campus — focusing on walkability, focusing on bike paths, the ability for pedestrians and vehicles to safely co-exist to reduce the need to drive around so students ... can easily walk or bike to class.”
Perry, the county’s transportation director, said firm cost estimates haven’t been developed and wouldn’t be released even if they had; the county wouldn’t want to affect bids, which will be opened Feb. 2. But, he said: “This project could be in the $10 million range, all said and done.”
The plaza will be a big part of the cost.
Gossett said in addition to trees planted in the plaza, 39 trees will be added along Greene between Assembly and Gadsden to supplement 25 existing trees. The landscaping plan also calls for benches and decorative lighting.