The Olympia and Granby mill villages face significant challenges — from railroads to rowdy college students — on the road to transforming themselves into a cohesive, engaging and more family friendly neighborhood, according to preliminary findings by a consultant charged with revitalizing the district.
But the area also has a rich heritage, dedicated life-long residents and more than enough potential to become one of the city’s most vibrant and distinctive areas, consultants said during a public presentation at 701 Whaley on Wednesday.
But the meeting was light on recommendations, painting in broad strokes the opportunities to improve everything from transportation to drainage in the 120-year-old mill villages, which share a common patch of land and history but have subtly different characters.
“It’s a start,” said Jake Jaco, owner of arguably the city’s oldest tavern, Jaco’s Corner, who along with his wife, Sherry, is converting the village’s century-old first school into a museum. “I’m anxious to see where it’s going to go.”
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The study was funded by both Richland County and the city of Columbia, as the district is split between the two jurisdictions. Among the priorities identified were:
The CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads crisscross the area, known in the study as the Capital Mill District, gnarling traffic and isolating the 1890s villages from the rest of the city. There are a total of 11 grade crossings in the district and no coordination of the two competing railroad companies.
Preliminary thoughts are that the tracks could be consolidated and raised — much the same as a plan for nearby Assembly Street, but there is presently no funding, consultants said.
Consultants advocated more sidewalks along major thoroughfares like Olympia Avenue, Rosewood Avenue and Whaley Street, along with separated and safe bike paths along the same major streets.
Greenways should also be extended and established along Rocky Branch Creek and the Congaree River for better connections with the rest of the city. Better foot and bicycle traffic would also would lessen the need for cars by the throngs of University of South Carolina students who live in the area.
▪ Economic development
Consultants envision establishing retail zones at the edges of the district on Catawba Street, Assembly Street and Rosewood Avenue. The number of residents — particularly students and others — are a customer base for more service and hospitality businesses.
Those same students, a lack of sidewalks, the railroads and other factors are obstacles to economic development.
▪ Storm drainage and flooding
Improving greenways and parks will help both transportation and flooding, according to the preliminary presentation. But there is also heavy lifting to be done from improving Rocky Branch Creek to eliminating a massive unused railway berm.
Details of all of those initiatives will be presented later in the year, with a final plan to be presented to the Columbia City Council and the Richland County Council in the spring.
However, the two elephants in the room on Wednesday were the growing number of USC students and their absentee landlords, and the dovetailing of Richland County and city of Columbia law enforcement, codes enforcement and other issues.
Those will be addressed in later meetings, said Leigh DeForth of the city of Columbia Planning Department.
“This is Phase One,” she said. “There will be a high level of detail later. But I don’t know what those details will be.”
Olympia/Granby mill village priorities
▪ Growing student population
▪ Codes enforcement
▪ Economic development