Downtown adds residential units, but few businesses

Hundreds of people flooded Main Street on a recent Thursday night, shopping, eating and enjoying live music.

It was far from a typical after-hours scene in downtown Columbia, but it’s one Jeff Prioreschi hopes will become common as more people move to Main Street.

“Main Street had a rich history, and we think it’s Columbia’s future one day,” said Prioreschi, who organized Urban Tour ’07 to give Midlands’ residents a glimpse into what the city could become.

Prioreschi and his father, Tom, through their Capitol Places development group, have opened more than 200 apartments and condominiums since 1999 on Main Street, bringing in about 250 residents.

Another 165 people are expected to move into the 110-unit Vsion Condominiums around the corner on Lady Street when it opens in a year.

A short walk across the State House campus to the other side of Main Street, Holder Properties is building the 110-unit Adesso condominiums.

Prioreschi said the city is at a critical point of change. With revitalization efforts in full swing, he hopes the business community will follow residential developers’ lead. Few businesses are open on and around Main Street after the work crowd flees downtown at dusk each day.

Even though the Vista — with its stores, restaurants, bars and entertainment — is a short walk away, many Main Street residents don’t feel connected to it.

“It is only a half a mile away, but does it feel different? Absolutely,” said Angela McClure, who moved to an apartment on Main Street two years ago from San Francisco. “Central downtown to me feels more like a neighborhood than the Vista does.

“I’d really like to see some of that (business) come back up this way.”

However, revitalization has been slower on the Main Street corridor.

“I don’t think there’s enough of us down there in the evenings,” said Paul Berry, who moved into Capitol Places apartments in the old Kress building more than a year ago. But with the new developments set to open in the next year, “I think we’re finally maybe reaching that tipping point.”

Berry’s biggest complaint is parking. The spaces he and his neighbors use sometimes are blocked off by the city for events at the Columbia Museum of Art, and as more residents move in, parking gets more scarce.

But one of the main draws of living downtown for many residents is the walking — to work, school or entertainment.

Jim Morris and his wife, Maureen, moved from the Heathwood area — where they had lived for 25 years — to a condo on Main Street a year ago.

As director of the Baruch Institute at USC, Morris rides his bicycle a quarter of a mile to work every day. His wife, a nurse, walks to work.

Morris was transformed by two years he spent living in an apartment in downtown Washington, D.C., while he worked for the National Science Foundation on sabbatical from the university.

“I could walk to work and jump on a Metro and go anywhere I wanted without a car,” he said. “It was an amazingly liberating experience. I had more free time, and I didn’t feel constrained by traffic conditions.”

He came home about the time the Prioreschis were opening their first living spaces on Main Street.

“It’s been fantastic,” he said. “We walk to a lot of venues around town. The art museum is across the street; the library is a block away. I hope that Columbia is just at the beginning of a renaissance.”

Morris hopes that Columbia’s city center someday will be as lively as areas like Greenville, Charlotte and Raleigh. He thinks the steep rise in gas prices will help push the trend.

“It will pick up steam for sure,” he said. “People are going to grow weary of having to pay exorbitant prices to drive 40 miles round-trip into the city on a daily basis.”

As people trickle into downtown living spaces, Prioreschi hopes businesses will start staying open after dark and that more businesses will open.

“It’s still a little slow right now,” he said. “There’s still a need for more restaurants and services. We’re getting there.”

Peter Webb is one entrepreneur who is betting on Main Street. He opened Wish, a jewelry and clothing store, a year ago and plans to open an after-hours restaurant early next year.

“People want to be around activity,” he said, “around restaurants, around nightlife.”

He believes that as more people move in to the area, business will pick up.

But whether the residents come first or the businesses do, many agree that both will be necessary to sustain a revitalization in the city core.

“It’s still not quite city living,” said Keith Jonasson, who was checking out apartments during the Urban Tour. He has been living in an apartment in Northeast Richland since moving to Columbia from Pennsylvania a year ago for work. “Hopefully, this is going to get the ball rolling to really make it a fun place to be.”