Consultants are working with city leaders to devise ways to make the city center more vibrant, even quirky, to keep a broader range of people more engaged with downtown Columbia.
“This is about keeping people on Main longer and falling in love with it,” Celsa Dockstader, a Gehl Studio consultant, told Columbia politicians and city department heads Thursday.
Some of the ideas include creating a “Blue Boulevard” to get residents and visitors to walk more safely from the State House to the Congaree River, using mimes to draw attention to dangerous intersections or having book-themed play areas at the county library.
“How can we find spaces for an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old?” Gehl project manager Geoff Dyck asked a small group that included Mayor Steve Benjamin meeting at the First Citizens Cafe in the heart of the central business district.
The scatterbox of ideas is to be refined into a handful of doable projects within a couple of months, Dyck said. “We don’t have fully formed ideas yet. We want to zero in on this.”
Thursday’s meeting with government officials is part of an evaluation by Copenhagen-based Gehl that began in September with listening sessions, workshops, surveys, impromptu street meetings with pedestrians employing 50 volunteers as well as visits to downtown events such as the outdoor Soda City market on Saturdays, Dyck said.
Gehl was hired by the Central Carolina Community Foundation using a $135,000 award from the Knight Foundation, said JoAnn Turnquist, the foundation’s president. Foundation official David Laird told the gathering that the goal is “to reimagine what our urban core could be.”
Dyck said Gehl has done similar exercises in Charlotte; Columbus, Ohio; Lexington, Ky.; Philadelphia; New York City; Denver; and San Jose, Calif., among other urban centers.
Organizers are still talking to residents and visitors.
“They’re trying to bring some of that social street ambiance to a car-dominated culture,” said Michael Juras, a Columbia-area resident who was on Main Street Thursday evening during a First Thursday event. He had stopped at a display of the ideas being mulled by the consultants.
“The only question now is what sort of retrofit we meed here for the millennials,” Juras said.
Other ideas discussed Thursday, none of which are finalized or funded, are:
▪ Making the State House grounds more usable for ongoing events such as occasional movie nights or inviting ethnic restaurants in the metro area to set up food kiosks for a day.
▪ Creating health- and African-American history-themed blocks along Lady Street focusing on the cluster of fitness businesses and historic black landmarks that dot the area. Each themed area would be accented with signs and eye-grabbing displays.
▪ Having pockets of events that are close to each other. The idea is to lure pedestrians to walk from one activity to another, an approach that Dyck calls “breadcrumbs” to attract pedestrians to spend more time in the city center.
▪ Widening the median on Assembly Street and changing its use from a crosswalk stopping point to a place for a range of activities. Dyck said a one-day snapshot on a Saturday in November found that nearly 1,000 pedestrians jaywalked across Assembly Street near the library. “More people are jaywalking than crossing with the lights,” he said of the 2-to-1 ratio that volunteers tabulated.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.