How to be a cool river city:
Outdoor recreation – Check.
Amphitheater with live music – Check.
Instagram-worthy bridge – Check.
Waterfront dining – (Crickets.)
Columbia’s still waiting. And we are hungry.
What’s a city got to do to get some riverside restaurants around here?
Part of the “why not” answer is fairly simple and unavoidable: Geography. Much of the land on the Congaree River near downtown is flood-prone and can’t be developed. The river and the adjacent Columbia Canal were used for shipping more than a century ago. But even the Vista warehouses used to store goods that traveled on boats weren’t built near the waterways.
Still, if developing right by the water is difficult for Columbia, there are untapped opportunities for delicious Congaree views from the high land on the western bank – what’s not already houses and apartments – and in the wild stretch of land between Gervais and Blossom streets on the eastern side.
“Think about the plaza at EdVenture (Children’s Museum),” said Fred Delk, director of the Columbia Development Corp., which guides development in the downtown area. Imagine that sort of elevated development, he said, set back from the water, with restaurants and other activity peeking at the river from above.
That’s something that could work, Delk said.
“It depends on what this community demands,” Delk said. “Frankly, we’ve been talking about it long enough. Let’s get it figured out.”
A hallmark of a river city
Waterfront dining is a hallmark of a river city – look at Savannah, San Antonio, Memphis, Minneapolis and nearly any other city you can think of with water running through it.
“Every place that I have ever been that had water that you could get to had a restaurant on it,” said Mike Dawson, director of Columbia’s River Alliance.
Riverfront activity is a selling point for thriving cities around the country.
“In San Antonio, the River Walk has been a staple. It’s a huge tourist attraction,” said Tiffany Wright, a AAA Carolinas spokesperson and a San Antonio native. AAA is a nationwide automobile service organization also known for its travel planning and discounts.
“People really do like to eat outside, like to eat along the waterfront,” Wright said. “It gives you that sense ... of escaping, even just for an hour or two. You feel like you’re not in the same city. You feel like you’re on a vacation from the hustle and bustle.”
Looking for a table with a view
People around town are talking seriously about how to better “activate” Columbia’s riverfront, Dawson said.
“The people are down there now in quantities. The question is what can you sell them,” he said.
There used to be the New Orleans Riverfront Restaurant, closed in 2010 as a victim of the recession, and Joe’s Crab Shack, closed in 1999, overlooking the Congaree from West Columbia and Cayce, respectively.
Now, the closest you’ll get to dining on the water near downtown is a table at Terra or Al’s Upstairs in West Columbia. Both sit on a hill with enviable views of the downtown skyline and the Gervais Street bridge crossing the river.
Or at Stone River, an events venue in the old New Orleans restaurant building on the riverwalk in West Columbia.
Stone River’s allure as a venue is “100 percent” thanks to its riverside locale and spectacular view, said Margaret Crabtree, the venue’s operations manager.
“We want (the view) to be the focal point when you walk in,” she said. “The river is becoming the place to be, and that’s exciting.”
On the Columbia side of the river, the most immediate chance for waterfront – or near-waterfront – dining could be at the CanalSide development off Taylor Street, where the final build-out phase is underway and will include ground-floor retail and restaurant spaces along the Columbia Canal.
And the next closest thing to riverfront dining is about to take shape in West Columbia with construction underway on the new Brookland development at Meeting and State streets. Chef Kristian Niemi – of Bourbon on Columbia’s Main Street and, soon, another restaurant on North Main – already has said he plans to open a high-end steak and seafood restaurant there, with a chance of Congaree views from its spot on the hill.
“I think that the Brookland project is going to be a catalyst for many, many changes and additional redevelopment on the west side of the river, which would include restaurants because you’re going to have people,” West Columbia Mayor Bobby Horton said. “It’s possible that it could accelerate some changes on the Columbia side.”
Long-held visions still in sight
Long seen as the best possibility for downtown riverfront development is land owned by the influential Guignard family between Gervais and Blossom streets on the Columbia side of the Congaree and at the corner of Knox Abbott Drive and the river in Cayce.
It’s land that has been talked about for decades yet remains unchanged.
Years-old, dreamy plans for a 74-acre, jewel of a riverfront park on the Columbia banks and a mixed-use development on the Cayce-side bluff are still the vision for the properties, said Charlie Thompson, who manages the land for the Guignard family.
If ever realized, the Columbia-side park could feature dining and shopping, and the Cayce-side property could boast a hotel with commercial amenities, Thompson said.
Now that residents and development have moved rapidly and densely toward the river in recent years, the climate is hotter than ever to make moves on the land there, Thompson acknowledged.
There are plans to extend Williams and Greene streets near the river in the next several years with money from the Richland County transportation penny sales tax. That would open up access to the Guignard land, making it more feasible to develop.
But a few factors could continue to stall any movement on the Columbia side, among them: extensive repairs needed on the Columbia Canal after the historic 2015 flooding, and SCE&G figuring out how to handle tons of toxic coal tar in the river near the site.
Even so, Thompson said, forces are at work to get activity going on the Guignard properties, though he’s coy on details or timelines.
“We’re now sort of coming into that age where these sorts of concepts and visions become viable,” Thompson said. “Prior to feeling these sort of forces, it just was a much longer shot. But I think now these things are getting much closer to becoming reality for a whole host of reasons.”
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.
GREAT RIVER CITIES
Here’s a sampling of Southern cities that have turned their smaller, mostly recreational rivers into attractions that pull people downtown – and why their efforts worked.
San Antonio. The city likes to say its tree-lined River Walk is the nation’s largest urban ecosystem. What people like: The path winds through commercial and residential areas alike, just steps from al fresco dining, the Alamo, museums, hotels, shops and 300-year-old Spanish missions. You also can take a boat tour or rent a paddle boat.
Chattanooga. Development has moved closer to the water in recent decades, bringing the core of the city with it in this city that’s comparable in size to Columbia. What people like: Nightlife, river cruises, double-decker buses, a Sunday in-town market, a wine-tasting festival held on a bridge, a sculpture garden and a thriving arts scene.
Richmond. Refurbished warehouses, shops and restaurants front cobblestone streets, the James River and the Canal Walk. What people like: Canal cruises, ethnic and high-end restaurants, cafes and vegan-centered dining. Hilly Richmond, beloved by mountain bikers and triathletes, in 2015 hosted the UCI Road World Championships.
Augusta. The Augusta Riverwalk along the Savannah River is this city’s new-ish backbone. What people like: There’s an amphitheater, a children’s playground, gardens, kayaking and biking along the riverwalk/canalwalk, several restaurants and bars not far away, on Broad Street, plus the Morris Museum of Art and the James Brown exhibit at the Augusta Museum of History.
Greenville. A long stretch of a narrow Main Street features restaurants and bars under a canopy of green. What people like: The “daylighting” of the Reedy River falls and the construction of Falls Park, a suspension cable bridge and an inviting trail around the falls has brought thousands more people downtown in recent years. But there are few places to eat that overlook water.
Memphis. The Birthplace of Rock ’n’ Roll boasts of live music everywhere, BBQ and riverfront shopping and nightlife. What people like: The neon-addled Beale Street is three blocks of nightclubs and shops. There’s also the National Civil Rights Museum and cruises on the Mississippi.