To have a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly city center, Columbia leaders must narrow Assembly Street to a four-lane corridor with a plaza in the median, build a signature pedestrian bridge at Gervais Street and divert motorists to park in the vast underground State House garage after legislative hours, a panel of urban planners recommends.
Those suggestions are in a 23-page report from the Urban Land Institute that is being unveiled today to Columbia City Council and the public.
The study offers no price tag for the projects or recommendations on how to pay for them.
But the report is designed to find ways to better connect Main Street, the Vista, the USC campus and the university’s Innovista district. The centerpiece would be the intersection of Assembly and Gervais streets at the foot of the capitol that also serves as a gateway to the Vista.
The institute plans next to turn to a similar plan that examines a wider area that reaches to Five Points and the Bull Street property that once housed the state mental health agency. “It’s an opportunity to turn it into an iconic place at the heart of downtown Columbia,” the study states. “This achievement can be a galvanizing moment in the history of the city, with wide-reaching benefits.”
The study was commissioned last fall by Columbia, West Columbia and their development corporations using a $12,500 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant, said Fred Delk, director of the Columbia Development Corp.
Efforts to reach Charlestonian John L. Knott Jr., chairman of the eight-member panel that conducted the study, were unsuccessful Monday.
The study largely is intended to bring attention to the need for a long-range plan to make the city center more walk able and to break down walls among groups that are focused only on their parts of downtown.
“This is keeping each district and the city as a whole from achieving their full social and economic potential,” the study’s authors wrote.
The parameters of the area studied are:
• A nine-block stretch of Main Street, from the State House grounds to Elmwood Avenue
• A six-block portion of Gervais, from the Congaree River to Assembly
• The nearly 360 acres that comprise the University of South Carolina
• The 500 acres in USC’s Innovista research park.
The study also suggests doing away with some lanes along Gervais in the Vista that switch from two in each direction to as many as five lanes. Gervais in the Vista should consistently have four driving lanes, it says.
Though Assembly and Gervais become clogged during rush hours and Assembly is a major feeder during USC home football games, both streets are too wide for the average volume of traffic they carry, Delk said. Assembly, for example, has a 35,000 per vehicle daily average though it’s designed to carry up to 70,000 per day, he said.
The median on Assembly should be converted to an attractive “linear park” that might feature a downtown farmers market, as it once housed; a paved plaza with benches and perhaps offer a fountain or some kind of water feature. The median is now a raised concrete barrier lined with parking meters.
As part of that plan, Assembly Street traffic would be reduced to two lanes north and two lanes south from three or more.
The study found that Columbia, not just Assembly Street, has too many surface parking lots and under-used garages. The authors suggest that city leaders find a way to discourage street parking and private parking lots, but the report does not offer suggestions on how to accomplish that goal or calculate its expense.
Delk said the cavernous underground garage behind the capitol and House and Senate office buildings is largely empty after legislative hours as well as on Mondays and Fridays when the General Assembly is not in session. That garage could handle much of the parking that is now at meters or at nearby parking lots, he said.
Other suggestions from the study include finding ways to build more apartments or condominiums downtown to create more of an urban atmosphere and attract people who would walk from their homes to commercial and recreational venues in the city center.
“This is not an engineering study. It’s not a detailed study,” Delk said. “It’s trying to show would could be done.”