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18-story Main & Gervais office tower set to open

When the new 18-story Main & Gervais tower opens on Monday, it will mark the zenith of a building boom unmatched in Columbia since Sherman's troops got tricky with matches.

The $60 million building is the third office tower to open on "South Carolina's Main Street" in the past five years and crests a decade-long wave of new construction that has reshaped the capital city's downtown.

And the modern, wedge-shaped glass building at the corner of Main and Gervais streets puts an exclamation point on arguably the city's more prominent power location - directly across the street from the State House.

"It's an extraordinary location and an extraordinary building," said Terry Brown, chief executive officer of Columbia-based firm Edens & Avant, one of the nation's leading shopping center owners and operators. "We're going to be there for a long time."

But while the building represents a new start for co-owners and occupants Edens & Avant, National Bank of South Carolina and the McNair Law Firm, it could represent the final hurrah for what Mayor Bob Coble termed "Columbia's Renaissance."

Main & Gervais developer John Holder of Atlanta predicts that no substantial new buildings will go up anytime soon because of the recession and banks' unwillingness to loan money for new projects.

"I can't see anything new being built," he said.

Holder Properties was the developer of the 18-story Meridian Building just down Main Street from Main & Gervais, as well as the Adesso condominium building on south Main and the Aspyre apartment complex on Assembly Street.

Holder said he plans no other new projects here in the foreseeable future.

"We need to sell a few more condos in Adesso," he said. "We need to get into our main market for Aspyre in the spring. And we've got our hands full getting these people in Main & Gervais and making them happy."

Holder said the market now in Columbia will be rehabilitating older buildings while labor and materials are cheap.

OFFICE SPACE

And there will be plenty of office space to rehab.

SCANA Corp.'s departure from the Palmetto Center on Main Street to a new facility in Cayce freed up a full one-tenth of the 4.6 million square feet of downtown office space - downtown defined as the Congaree River to Harden Street, Elmwood Avenue to Blossom Street.

And the three firms moving in the 205,000 square feet of space in the Main & Gervais building will empty more offices in the NBSC, Bank of America Plaza and Wilbur Smith buildings.

The empty Palmetto Center and the opening of the Meridian and First Citizens buildings have driven occupancy rates down to 78.4 percent - the lowest rate in years, said David Lockwood, with Colliers Keenan commercial real estate firm. When Main & Gervais is fully occupied next year, that rate is expected to drop to 71.6 percent.

The office occupancy rate peaked in 2002 at about 91 percent.

However, leasing rates have remained stable at $22 per square foot for the best and newest office space, according to Colliers Keenan.

"This is a very affordable market," Lockwood said, who noted that office space in suburban Charleston rents for about $27 a square foot. The best office space in downtown Charleston rents for $28.5 per square foot, in downtown Greenville for $21.5 a square foot.

"A lot of new companies will be looking to move to downtown Columbia. But they are flying under the radar. We now have a lot of different rates and a lot of different styles.

"The good news for (building) owners is that nobody is building anything," Lockwood said. But new tenants are "going to want to see new paint and a modern look in the older buildings."

'SO DIFFERENT'

The modern Main & Gervais tower is quite a departure from the more traditional, rectangular structures around it.

The three corporate partners trusted Holder on the design.

"We worked long and hard with the architect," Holder said. "It was important to have something that was modern and had the views. It's so different from everyone else; that's how we make our statement."

Chuck Garnett, president and chief executive of NBSC, said, "We really trusted John's judgment. He's got a great track record, and it worked out very nice."

The building is angular, with a fourth-story corner balcony and floor-to-ceiling windows that offer spectacular views of the State House and the rest of the city from Williams-Brice Stadium to the Lake Murray dam.

The tower has a two-story lobby, nine stories of offices and five stories of parking. The ground floor also will be home to an upscale restaurant and a fitness center, Holder said.

The building sits next to the state's tallest tower, the 25-story Capitol Center, formerly the Affinity or SouthTrust building, along Gervais Street.

Main & Gervais was designed by Durham, N.C.-based Duda Paine Architects. The firm has designed award-winning projects across the country, including the Frost Bank Tower in Austin, Texas, and Atlanta's Terminus condo and retail complex.

Agreeing to the design "wasn't a difficult decision at all," said David Tigges, McNair Law Firm chief executive, during a tour of the building earlier this month.

"We wanted a freshness, something new. We still have the history across the street," he said. referring to the State House.

STICKING WITH MAIN STREET

Edens & Avant, with 130 employees, will occupy the first three floors of the building above the lobby. Employees are expected to be in the new digs starting Monday.

The firm is currently in the Bank of America Plaza on Main Street, which the firm developed three decades ago. But unlike SCANA, Edens & Avant didn't entertain thoughts of leaving downtown, CEO Brown said.

"We would never consider not being part of the urban core," he said. "Being on Main Street is really important to us, and that's where our employees want to be. (The building) will help create a unique cluster of activity in the central business district."

The new space will feature an open floor plan for better interaction between employees and managers, and it is expected to meet LEED standards for energy efficiency, the company said.

The five stories of parking will be located in the center of the building above Edens & Avant.

NBSC will occupy three floors above the parking decks. Its 95 employees will move in by mid-March.

The bank is moving from the building that now bears its name. It sits next to the new tower on Main.

In addition to its three office floors, it will have a branch in the lobby of the new building.

"It's one of the most high-profile corners in the entire state," CEO Garnett said. "It's a location that can serve our company long term."

The McNair firm's staff of 142 people will occupy the top three floors beginning in July. It now is in the Wilbur Smith & Associates building, at Gervais and Sumter streets.

"The firm has always operated at the intersection of business and government," McNair's chief operating officer, John Currie, said during the recent tour. "And now that's where we are physically, as well."

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