A multimillion-dollar renovation of Finlay Park and a pedestrian-friendly remodeling of parts of two major downtown streets might be within reach if local governments will agree to a controversial financing plan being floated by Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin.
Benjamin said last week that he’s working on a proposal to create a small taxing district that would capture property taxes on buildings along Assembly Street stretching north to Laurel Street, west to just behind the rundown park and south to Washington Street.
The largest source of income would come from a proposed $60 million to $70 million, 15-story apartment building called The Edge that a Chicago-based company wants to construct near the Richland County library, Benjamin said.
“The thought is to use TIFs, tax increment financing, on a much smaller scale to capture the new tax increment created when you have significant private investment,” he said. “One potential possibility is to look at The Edge.
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“I’d like to see it happen to help create the revitalization of Finlay Park.”
In addition to overhauling the park, the proposal includes making nearby portions of busy Assembly and Taylor streets pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.
The payoff, Benjamin says, would be a beautiful and workable park, more pedestrian-friendly streets nearby, presumably more people wanting to live and work in an increasingly vital downtown, and rising tax values all around the area, which should benefit the city in the long run.
Benjamin said he will submit the idea to City Council as soon as one of its August meetings. Council is scheduled to meet only once in July. City manager Teresa Wilson said city staff has been working on the plan and would be ready to bring it to council in August.
The plan is a long way from reality. Not only City Council, but Richland County Council and the Richland District 1 school board must all agree to create the tax district. That means they would agree to forgo the tax money for themselves, agreeing to spend the money instead on specific projects with in that tax district for a specific period of time.
The mayor said he’s been in private talks with officials about the plan and has gotten positive reactions. The tax district plan supplants Benjamin’s earlier proposal to pay for Finlay Park with a bond that would be repaid by meal tax – hospitality tax – revenue.
Benjamin’s rough estimates are that the tax district could raise $600,000 yearly for every $20 million worth of commercial properties within the district.
The plan with Assembly and Taylor streets is to make the blocks that are close to Finlay look more like the blocks of Assembly that were remodeled by the University of South Carolina in front of the new Darla Moore School of Business.
A wider median, for one thing, would make the streets easier to cross. Trees would make them shadier on summer days and bring the whole area down more to a human scale.
Renovation cost must drop
Neither he nor city parks officials would say what the new cost might be to revitalize a park that for decades was described as downtown’s jewel but in the past 10 years has fallen into serious, and in some ways unsafe, disrepair.
The consultants are to come before City Council in August to lay out a range of options that scale back the high-dollar plan.
The Cadillac plan includes a three-story, circular building with a glass lookout from which visitors could gaze over the park, a tiered series of waterfalls that would cascade from the signature water fountain that has become a city landmark, walking and biking trails, a bridge across the existing pond, a destination playground and a new entranceway along Taylor Street that could feature the popular, large Busted Plug sculpture.
Allison Baker, the city’s senior assistant city manger, said the renovations might have to be done in phases.
“The price tag is more than we can do now,” Baker said of $20.6 million. “There are amenities that might have to come out of the first phase and then be put back in a second phase.”
Replacement of basics such as water lines, electric pumps and the eroding topography are likely to come first, along with fixing the leaky fish pond and the now unused, 27-foot fountain, Baker said.
The $1 million fountain has not worked since October, Martin said. In 2014, the city repaired pumps that push 2,400 gallons per minute through the fountain. The fix did not last.
Tall walls along the Laurel Street side are in danger of failing and fill dirt has become unstable, city parks planner Todd Martin said.
Among the key elements of the Cadillac plan the parks department would like to keep are a destination playground, a pedestrian bridge over the pond, sight lines cleared of brush to improve safety and a repositioned music pavilion so the sound is directed away from the Arsenal Hill neighborhood at the top of the park, Martin said. They also would like to make the park more handicap accessible and offering more interactive public art.
But the most eye-catching feature, the 25,000-square-foot glass wall building that could be rented for events, is the fastest way to cut costs. Its price tag is $6.5 million, Martin said.
Neighborhood open to idea of tax district
Cliff Spann, president of the Arsenal Hill Neighborhood Association, said his neighbors like the Cadillac plan, including the event center. But to delay or even kill the circular structure would not stop the neighborhood’s support of a remodeled park, he said.
The mayor has discussed with him the prospect of a tax district to pay for the park, Spann said. But the neighborhood association has not yet taken up that issue. “I think we would be open to the discussion,” Spann said.
The tax district would be rectangular, what Benjamin calls a “natural” boundary. That would make it different from some prior proposals for other parts of town that have failed. An expansive tax district that would have stretched from Farrow Road in north Columbia through Eau Claire and onto the fledgling Bull Street neighborhood did not get off the ground politically.
But the mayor points to the rousing success starting in the 1990s of the districts that built the public infrastructure in the Vista and are credited with the area’s revitalization. Those districts captured taxes from the state’s tallest high-rise, the 25-story Capitol Center, among other large facilities, to beautify Gervais Street and help acquire land and build the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center and USC’s Colonial Life Arena.
Greenville also has had success with mini-TIFs such as the one he proposes, Benjamin said.
He wants to use taxes from the district to pay for connecting Finlay Park to the Vista as well as the Congaree riverfront, where the plan is to use penny sales tax money in coming years to build a large waterfront park.
As for the streetscaping, previous studies have put the price tag for making Assembly and Taylor more welcoming to walking and biking at $2.5 million per block, Benjamin said.
“It’s going to require us completely re-envisioning Taylor Street,” he said. Taylor and Assembly create barriers to the river that are physical and perceptual, Benjamin said. “This is an opportunity to really physically and fundamentally begin to connect it all. It’s an incredible future.
“Obviously, we’ll have to run the number. A lot depends on that,” he said of the taxes the district would generate. “But it is a creative way, and a thoughtful way, to again use private sector capital investment to the benefit of the entire public.”
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.