Downtown Columbia residents could soon have a much shorter drive – or walk – to the movies.
A 10-screen movie theater is mentioned in a traffic impact analysis for the 181-acre Bull Street redevelopment project. And a site plan for part of the development shows a 49,000-square-foot theater and four-level parking garage along Colonial Drive, the site’s northern boundary.
Details about the proposed theater are limited.
But it would be downtown Columbia’s first large multiplex theater, opening decades after most of downtown’s one- and two-screen movie houses shut their doors.
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The Nickelodeon Theater on Main Street, which started as an art-house theater and recently added a second screen, has been downtown Columbia’s lone movie theater since the Jefferson Square Theatre on Main Street turned off its projector in 1993.
That has left downtown residents for years starved of easy access to wide-release movies. Unless they’re going to the Regal Cinema at Richland Mall in Forest Acres, downtowners take a major highway to the nearest multiplex theater.
But with the recent downtown apartment boom and students, young professionals and empty nesters moving into the city core in droves, a downtown movie theater could be a hit, said Matt Kennell, president and CEO of City Center Partnership, which promotes development in and around Main Street.
“I do think there would be a very strong market for a large, particularly a state-of-the-art movie theater complex,” Kennell said. “There probably is pent-up demand for that.”
That demand has been building for years. Downtown Columbia had up to eight movie houses in operation from the 1920s to early 1980s, according to John Sherrer, director of cultural resources at Historic Columbia.
Several of those were on Main Street, which “teemed with people” back then, Sherrer said. But, he said, those theaters died as residents moved out to suburbs and malls sprung up there to meet their needs.
“With the heightened viability of downtown, with the heightened interest in living and recreating in the original city core, the rise in popularity for the rebirth in downtown movie theaters is not a surprise,” Sherrer said.
Even so, talk of a movie theater at Bull Street is more than a decade old. A 10- to 12-screen movie theater in 2005 was penciled into early, speculative designs for the redevelopment drawn by Andres Duany and his Miami-based architectural firm.
Duany said then that with the University of South Carolina and Columbia’s numerous surrounding neighborhoods, it was remarkable that downtown didn’t have a multi-screen movie theater.
Still, Duany’s final speculative design for the project, presented in 2006, left out the theater.
Residents who live nearby generally are excited at the possibility of a theater, but some are casting a wary eye at its impact on traffic in neighborhoods.
“I think there’s a need for that sort of entertainment,” said Ellen Cooper, president of the Coalition of Downtown Neighborhoods. “We have lots of places you could go and hear music and that kind of thing, but I think it would be nice to have a movie theater. And 10 screens gives you 10 choices.”
Sabrina Odom, executive director of the North Columbia Business Association, said adding more entertainment options to downtown would give USC graduates a reason to stick around.
“That’s the goal,” Odom said, “to make people want to live here.”
Paul Bouknight, president of the Cottontown/Bellevue Neighborhood Association, said he likes the idea of having a movie theater within walking distance. But it’s important that Columbia officials ensure traffic from the development is organized and does not “ruin the quiet nature of our neighborhoods,” he said.
“Having those things close by is exciting as long as we can protect the neighborhoods,” Bouknight said. “We have to look to the city to look out for us.”
Kennell said he would expect downtown residents to be enthused they won’t have to drive 10 miles to see a movie.
“To really have a brand new, state-of-the-art type of theater, with amenities that people expect today, it would do well,” Kennell said. “Entertainment of all types has become very popular downtown.”
Now-shuttered downtown Columbia movie theaters
Downtown Columbia for decades had several one- and two-screen movie houses before they died as residents moved to suburbs. Here are some of the prominent theaters residents once frequented.
- Jefferson Square Theatre
- Palmetto Theatre
- Five Points Theatre
- The Fox Theatre
- The Ritz Theatre
- Strand Theatre
- Carolina Theatre