As Columbia’s Main Street rides the wave of recent, rapid revitalization, numerous obstacles and opportunities loom that could stall or further propel the district’s growth.
“We need to not back off,” said Matt Kennell, whose City Center Partnership organization has been instrumental to the development of the Main Street district.
For Columbia’s Main Street momentum to continue, five things must happen, city leaders and observers say. Here’s a look at what a growing Main Street faces in coming years and how city leaders are preparing to face the challenges.
Solving the parking equation
You used to not be able to give away a parking space on Main Street. Now, the search for parking is one of the bigger frustrations for many people who visit.
“The biggest complaint I get from my customers is parking,” said Thomasina Reynolds, owner of His and Her’s Tailoring Shop, located in the Arcade Mall. People say to her, “I went around the block five times!”
There is still parking to be found in the five public garages in the district, but those spaces will become scarcer as its popularity grows.
It’s a good problem to have, many downtown and city leaders say, because it means that people are coming downtown.
The city already is looking at how to grow its parking supply not just in the Main Street district but all across downtown, assistant city manager Missy Gentry said. And city leaders have some specific sites in mind where new parking decks could be built, she said, though she said she couldn’t disclose where they’re looking.
“We really do want to be proactive and not reactive,” Gentry said.
Downtown’s immediate and near-future parking needs aren’t the only considerations for city leaders. They’re also keeping in mind how parking demands could change dramatically further down the road as car technologies advance, and they’re thinking about how parking facilities can be designed with adaptive reuse already in mind, Gentry said.
Attracting retail businesses
“I hate when people tell me retail is dying,” said Mark Rosenbaum, a professor and the chair of the retail department at the University of South Carolina. “Retail is not dying. Yes, the enclosed mall is dying. But the form that is growing (globally) is the open-air, lifestyle center.”
Columbia’s Main Street has the potential to become that kind of center – it’s already got a mix of lifestyle elements such as entertainment, art and park spaces.
But it’s lacking a balance between its restaurant scene and its shopping and scene, downtown leaders, business owners and patrons often note.
Tom Prioreschi, the pioneering developer behind the various Capitol Places apartments on Main, wants to see more ground-floor, street-facing retail in the district.
“There’s too many of the high rises that are using the first floor as offices,” Prioreschi said. “They’re using prime spaces for offices, and it’s silly.”
It’s up to retailers to take risks to populate an up-and-coming area, and they will, Rosenbaum said. And consumers will follow – demographics prove they’re there, he said.
But it’s also up to the city to recruit retailers, Rosenbaum said. He suggests offering incentives like subsidizing rent or encouraging pop-up shops to test out the market.
“The community has got to reach out to the retailers in order to put Columbia on the map instead of waiting for retailers to discover Columbia,” Rosenbaum said.
Planting permanent residents
More full-time residents – that is, not just college students – are a must-have on Main to create a steady customer base for more businesses, downtown development leaders say.
Perhaps the district is coming to the time for more residential construction.
Prioreschi believes rents are rising to the point where it’s starting to make economic sense to build new-construction units.
Ron Swinson, a developer and the owner of the historic Arcade Mall building in the 1300 block, said he’s heard “some (residential) ideas are being kicked around right now ... within a block or two of Main Street.”
The opening of The Hub student apartment tower in 2014 boosted the number of Main Street residents to about 1,400, up from about 400 five years ago.
But the district needs a diverse residential base – from young professionals to active elderly – to appeal to new businesses, Rosenbaum said.
“The mix of people also sends a message that everyone’s welcomed here,” Rosenbaum said. “When a community has a diverse age population, they will actually broaden out their customer base.”
Connecting Main Street to the Vista
Bridging the physical and psychological barrier between two of downtown’s most active districts means tackling the mammoth thoroughfare of Assembly Street.
“We don’t need to have a six-lane highway one block off Main Street,” said Martha Fowler, a longtime property owner who has been active in the redevelopment of Main Street’s 1600 block. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
City leaders aren’t blind to the Assembly Street obstacle, Gentry said.
“We’ve talked about it for years,” Gentry said. “We want people to cross those lines and see everything Columbia has to offer.”
But money is the issue to doing something about it – to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. The city has unsuccessfully applied for money for Assembly Street from the State Infrastructure Bank in the past. It continues to seek possible ways to fund solutions to Assembly, Gentry said, including public-private partnerships.
Fowler suggests cutting out some lanes in the middle of the street and turning the median into a permanent market.
And yes, Gentry said, reducing the number of lanes on Assembly has been one of the discussions.
Rosenbaum says Columbia should be less concerned about the connection barrier and more concerned about giving people reasons to cross the barrier. Make the value or benefit of each district worth more than the cost of crossing Assembly, he said.
Extending streetscaping to extend development
“For Main Street to survive, the concrete must disappear,” Rosenbaum said. “Main Street must incorporate greenery into shopping.”
When consumers spend time visiting and shopping in natural-feeling, open-air environments, “there are health benefits, especially relief from mental fatigue,” Rosenbaum said. That’s something that online shopping can’t replicate, he said.
City and downtown development leaders agree continued streetscaping is a must to continue Main Street’s growth and vitality.
In 2010, the city completed $12.8 million worth of streetscaping on Main from Gervais to Blanding streets, Gentry said. Now, those blocks are thriving and have produced a grand return on the financial investment, Kennell notes.
But where the streetscaping stops, just past the 1600 block, so does much of Main Street’s liveliness.
“It’s like night and day,” Kennell said.
City leaders would like to continue the streetscaping northward, but money is holding them back, Gentry said.
In 2016, the city applied for and failed to receive a $9.5 million federal grant for streetscaping up to Elmwood Avenue, Gentry said.
While the city continues to look for funding, it will be going ahead soon with intersection improvements at the Blanding and Laurel intersections of Main, Gentry said.
Reach Ellis at 803-771-8307.