Main Street’s present is bright.
Old office towers are filled with residents. Its modern offices are nearly full. Retail is finally starting to take off. And it seems like a new restaurant opens nearly every week.
David Lockwood, executive vice president of Colliers International South Carolina, calls Main Street’s revival part of a national trend of people moving back downtown. And it’s a trend that is not going to slow down anytime soon.
“It’s no secret that we are seeing the urbanization of America,” he said. “And they want to be social. They want to live, work, eat and play downtown.”
But what does the future hold? Here are some highlights of things that are, or might be, on the horizon.
More restaurants and stores in office buildings
Main Street is seeing an influx of “fast casual” restaurants, like Cantina 76 and Michaels Cafe and Catering. They are restaurants that are well above fast food in quality, fast enough for a quick lunch and nice enough to host business meetings or gatherings with friends.
But for more to open, they need space.
Lockwood predicts the first floors of existing office towers will be converted from marble-covered, echo-y lobbies to new space for restaurants and stores. Think of the Drip coffee shop in the lobby of the 1441 Main office tower.
“More and more we’re going to see the first level of buildings renovated – like East Bay Deli,” he said of the Charleston-based restaurant that went into the former lobby of the 21-story Palmetto Center, which now houses the Hub student housing complex with its 850 residents.
And with more and more people showing up on the street, retailers are taking a harder look at the city’s former retail heart.
Who knows, maybe that Apple Store will finally pop up.
“Over the past few years we’ve touched based with them,” said Matt Kennell, president and CEO of City Center Partnership.
“The only word we’ve had is we’re on their list, whatever that means,” he said.
One developer has pitched building residential towers on top of existing parking garages. Whether that will happen is still up in the air, so to speak.
A St. Louis firm is supposed to build a 15-story student apartment project next to Richland Library on Assembly Street, although construction hasn’t started.
While that project is not technically on Main Street, it’s a block away, and those 600 students would be closer to Main Street than they would to the Vista.
Lockwood said downtown rents do not justify a new office tower today, but they are moving closer to the point where developers will start seriously considering new office space soon.
He noted the occupancy rate for Class A space is in the low 90s.
“We’re moving into a phase that might warrant new space on the market,” he said. “And that new construction is going to be downtown and not in the suburbs. That’s where the market is tight and that is where the rents are going to go up.”
When a new tower happens depends on the site, the size of the development and who can lure tenants.
Kennell said one prime location could be the surface parking lot directly across Assembly Street from Richland Library next to the Wells Fargo tower.
Developers in the meantime “are looking for any existing building they can refurbish,” Lockwood said.
They are particularly interested in historic warehouses because they provide tax credits, Kennell said, but he added that those buildings are fast filling up downtown.
“Then market forces are going to require new construction,” Kennell said. “And that’s when we might see a new tower.”
New government buildings
Both Richland County and the city of Columbia have been kicking around the idea of a new county judicial center and a new city hall. The old ones sit adjacent to each other on the 1700 block of Main Street.
City Council in 2015 bought the United Way headquarters building and 1 acre at the corner of Laurel and Main streets, kitty-corner from the present city hall. Mayor Steve Benjamin has floated the idea of building a high-rise there for city offices and sharing it with a private partner.
The city’s needs translate to about a 15-story building, but city staff has asked for ideas from private developers that could push that much higher.
As for the county courts building, both the county and city want to build a new one, but no decision has been made. If they move the courthouse to another location, that would open up prime real estate for a private developer.
The 1700 block hasn’t seen the investment that has occurred in the five blocks to the south, in large part because that is where the Main Street streetscaping project ended years ago, Kennell said.
“Wherever there’s been streetscaping, we’ve seen investment,” he said.
The city plans to streetscape the next four blocks between Blanding Street and Elmwood Avenue, but no funds have been earmarked for it.
Kennell said building owners and developers have been slow to invest in the 1700 through 2000 blocks “because they don’t know when the street is going to be torn up”
More focus on families
It’s not unusual to see moms with strollers ducking into coffee shops on Main Street these days. It would have been unheard of just a couple of years ago.
So planners are now thinking about more activities that can be shared by families.
A developer is building a “boutique” bowling alley in the former Army-Navy store building. The Nickelodeon is thinking about expanding its offerings to appeal more to families, and the Columbia Museum of Art is also mulling more family activities, Kennell said.
“More and more, we’re going to buildings and businesses with more family-friendly aspects,” he said.