NEXT NEW COLUMBIA EXCLUSIVE: Developer could build apartments atop city garages

The Cannon garage at the corner of Taylor and Sumter streets. It has six levels and a pedestrian path to the 1600 block of Main, near Mast General Store.
The Cannon garage at the corner of Taylor and Sumter streets. It has six levels and a pedestrian path to the 1600 block of Main, near Mast General Store. FILE PHOTOGRAPH

A developer plans to build apartments above as many as six city parking garages and possibly above any future garages the city builds in the next decade.

Hallmark Homes International Inc., a development group led by local developer and investor Don Tomlin, could sign a contract this month with the city for exclusive rights for 10 years to develop the air space above six city garages. Construction on the first garage apartments would begin within two years of signing the contract.

Tomlin was behind the development of the 1,679-acre Lake Carolina community in Northeast Richland and the Gibbes Green condominiums at Greene and Laurens streets near USC. Efforts to reach him were unsuccessful Wednesday.

Development above parking garages is not a novel idea in progressive cities around the country, Columbia City Manager Teresa Wilson said, but this would be the first the first time it is done in Columbia.

“With the density that we’re facing and the vacancy rate that we have, we’ve got to start building up,” Wilson said.

The garage apartments would not receive any tax breaks or incentives and would not be marketed to students. But, Wilson said, they should attract young professionals – especially students who may have otherwise considered leaving the city after graduating.

“I think it is the type of housing that would most appeal to ... folks who want to live, work and play in downtown Columbia and want to walk and bike and use public transit,” Wilson said. “And that’s the goal. That’s why we feel like this is in line with, ultimately, the vision for the city.”

The Washington Street, Taylor Street, Park Street, Lincoln Street, Lady Street and Cannon (at Taylor and Sumter streets) garages are included in the contract, which received initial approval from City Council this week. Each is located in the Main Street and Vista business and entertainment districts and ranges from three to six or more stories in height.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin called the prospect of the garage apartments “an exciting opportunity,” both to bring new properties onto the city’s tax rolls and to attract residents downtown.

Building above garages is a “smart economic development strategy,” he said.

Each of the prospective apartments could amount to an investment between $20 million and $30 million, Benjamin said.

After city staff works through some remaining details with Tomlin, a final vote on the contract is expected at council’s May 19 meeting.

The developer will “obtain the rights” to the air space above the garages, assistant city manager Melissa Gentry said, though the city and the developer are still working out details about what kind of financial exchange that will involve. The city would not have any ownership in the apartments.

Any garages to be built in the new Bull Street development, as well as any garages owned jointly by Columbia and another entity, are not included as part of of the city’s pending agreement with Hallmark. Columbia jointly owns the Discovery and Horizon garages in the Innovista district with USC.

Within two weeks of signing the contract with the city, the developer will begin conducting inspections and engineering work on the garages to determine which will be developed first.

The Lady Street garage at Lady and Assembly streets is likely to be the first to be developed, Wilson said. That’s within a block of apartments recently announced for Park and Lady streets, behind the Mellow Mushroom on Gervais Street.

Construction on the first apartments must begin within two years of the contact’s signing, and initial engineering and architectural work on the second set of apartments must begin by the time the first apartments’ tenants are leasing and moving in, according to the contract.

Developing above existing garages works to the city’s favor by bringing those properties onto the tax rolls and by increasing residential density downtown, Wilson said, which is something the city has been working toward.

One potential complication of the developments, however, is parking itself. Though the apartments would be built above city garages, the city cannot at this point guarantee it will be able to provide parking – which would be offered at standard city rates – in those garages for tenants.

Most of the city’s downtown garages are nearly full at this point, Wilson said.

“How do you balance the premium on parking? ... We have to be very creative,” Wilson said.

If the city determines it is not feasible to help provide parking for any one of the garage apartments, the contract allows the developer to choose whether to proceed with that project.

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.

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