Promising to curb traffic congestion, police students’ off-campus behavior and to give neighbors more say in future developments, the University of South Carolina has won over neighborhood leaders for its plans for a massive student housing village on the south side of USC’s downtown Columbia campus.
USC made the promises during yearlong negotiations with seven neighborhood leaders. Those leaders said area neighborhoods were concerned about the possible consequences – namely in increased traffic and poor student behavior – of tripling the number of students living nearby.
With the leaders’ blessing, however, USC on Thursday unveiled its revised plan to transform 18 acres on the dilapidated south side of its campus into a 3,700-bed “Campus Village” bordered by Pickens, Heyward and Sumter streets.
The plans include tearing down four 1970s-era dorms with 1,211 beds and building eight quad-styled residence halls of up to six stories and a parking garage. The construction would be in three phases over the next seven years.
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USC officials said it still is too early to estimate a cost for the project, which will be built by a private developer. The developer could pay for some or all of the construction, with USC paying the remainder out of its housing revenue.
The site plan released Thursday features cast-stone and brick buildings similar to USC’s Honors College dorm, several courtyards and public green space. It also has room for retail shops, a cafeteria and restaurants, including a coffee shop planned for a Whaley Street storefront.
Among a number of concessions to neighbors, USC agreed to:
▪ Cut the number of proposed parking spaces to 945 from about 3,000 and bar commuter students from parking in the area in an effort to curb traffic
▪ Design the buildings with reddish brick and pitched roofs to look compatible with homes in nearby neighborhoods
▪ House students mostly on the western side of the development, separated from neighborhoods by buffer zones and green space
▪ Hire “safety guides” to escort students home from the nearby Five Points entertainment district and keep them from misbehaving in neighborhoods
▪ Pay the city of Columbia so it can hire more employees to enforce building codes in off-campus neighborhoods where USC students typically rent houses
▪ Take part in a committee of neighborhood, city and university leaders to plan future development in downtown Columbia
▪ Hold off building the third and final phase of the project until neighbors agree USC has held up its end of the deal
“We think that the mitigation plan that we’ve got in place means we can have more students and a better neighborhood,” said former Richland County Commission member Kit Smith, one of the neighborhood leaders.
‘We opted to talk’
Last year, residents of downtown’s Wales Garden, Hollywood-Rose Hill, Wheeler Hill and University Hill neighborhoods balked at USC’s original plans for the development.
In an effort to allay those concerns, USC withdrew its original zoning request to build the south campus project, giving neighborhood leaders an unprecedented seat at the school’s planning table.
“We’ve spent over a year now working together, trying to understand what kind of impact our project will have on the neighbors and how can we make that better,” USC chief operating officer Ed Walton said.
“Our options came down to fight or talk,” Smith added. “We knew we could fight, but we opted to talk.”
Neighbors at a meeting Thursday at the Lourie Center mostly were receptive to the new plan. Almost every resident raised their hands when asked who felt comfortable moving forward under the compromise.
“They’ve done a yeoman’s job of making it a lot better than it was,” said Charles Lesser, a 72-year-old Hollywood-Rose Hill resident. “There are lots of difficult issues in these things. But, in a year’s time, they have taken a tremendous step forward.”
A key to the negotiations was a USC-commissioned traffic study that found the proposed development would result in a 17-percent drop in car trips around the area.
In part, that is because USC dropped the number of parking spots planned for the development to 945 – all in a garage at Whaley and Sumter streets – from the original proposal of 3,000 spaces in three garages.
That is also less than the 951 parking spots already at that site, 40 percent of which are used by commuting students.
USC has promised residents that only Campus Village residents will have permits to park in the area. Those permits will work only at Campus Village, limiting students’ incentive to drive to class, USC adds.
Campus Village residents who cannot park in the development’s garage will have other options, including using existing garages on campus, USC officials said.
USC also has other plans intended to keep students out of their cars.
Officials said they would expand shuttle options around campus, provide better bike and pedestrian access to the main campus – including building a pedestrian bridge over Wheat Street – and give students retail and restaurant options on-site at Campus Village.
All traffic from the village, including shuttle routes, would be directed west on Whaley Street away from the neighborhoods, USC has said.
“It does get a ton of cars off the hill and away from us,” Smith said.
Working in good faith
Residents also wanted assurances students would not bring noise and other behavioral problems to the area while walking to and from Five Points, concerns that flared again this fall as students returned to campus.
USC pledged to boost its shuttle services and improve pedestrian walking paths between the village and Five Points. The school also said it would hire “safety guides” to patrol the neighborhoods between Pickens Street and Saluda Avenue to keep students from making trouble.
“If they’re riding through or walking through your neighborhoods and creating mayhem, like that guy in the commercial, we don’t want that to happen,” Walton said.
The school also has pledged to pay Columbia to hire more code enforcement officers, specifically to police areas where USC students rent houses. Neighbors have complained rowdy students living off-campus have threatened quality of life in once-quiet areas.
“When we call and say there are too many cars parked in front of a house, we’ll be able to get someone to come in and look at it right away,” Smith said.
In what both sides called an act of good faith by the university, USC also has given neighbors the ability to block the third and final phase of the planned development – the renovation of the 216-bed Carolina Gardens apartments at Whaley and Pickens streets – if residents feel they have been shortchanged in previous dealings.
“It gives us a chance to have a pause, as the thing plays out, to make sure everything is working the way we think it will,” Smith said.
USC and neighborhood leaders also agreed to work more closely together to plan future development. Neighbors touted the agreement as an unprecedented, collaborative approach.
For now, that agreement is taking the shape of a “town-and-gown” planning committee, including representatives of the city, its neighborhoods and USC.
Smith said the committee might look at how to encourage USC faculty to live in neighborhoods close to campus, displacing student renters.
USC plans to bring its request to build the village before Columbia’s zoning board in December, USC architect Derek Gruner said.
USC plans to build the first phase of the project, including 1,448 beds and a garage, by 2019. Phase 2 would come in 2021. Phase 3 could follow in 2023.