Where’s downtown Columbia’s waterfront?
In most cities located on bodies of water, locals can aim visitors straight to the waterfront district. Not here. At least not yet.
But that could change in the next decade. Much as a rugged warehouse district crossed by frequent train traffic has grown into the vibrant Vista district between Assembly and Huger streets over the past two decades, the next transformation seems headed for the wild strip of land between Huger Street and the Congaree River.
City political and business leaders are counting on it.
They envision a showpiece waterfront park about twice as big as Finlay Park, ringed by shops, restaurants and apartments in a new Waterfront District. The park would be downtown’s new front porch, where people can sit or stroll with friends amid the beauty of a river and its natural green landscape.
“We’ve had explosive growth downtown in recent years,” said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, “and I believe the greatest potential for growth will be along the waterfront. It’s that way in any city with a waterfront.”
We’ve heard this before – in 1994 when local municipalities came together to form The River Alliance and then again in 2006 when the University of South Carolina and private partners, including Columbia’s key landholding Guignard family, released the grand Innovista Master Plan created by the Sasaki Associates firm.
Huger Street, envisioned as a huge part of Innovista, still has plenty of empty lots or old warehouses with rotating tenants. And roads that would run through the lush land to open up the area for urban development around the park have yet to be built.
But in the past 10 years, infill development has muscled up the Vista and Main Street, attracting more and more people to downtown living. Equally important, Richland County taxpayers approved a penny sales tax for transportation that will help build the access roads to the river.
Momentum finally seems to be building for progress toward Columbia’s true waterfront district.
What’s different now
Progress already is happening – just mostly on the other side of the river.
West Columbia and Cayce have shown how waterfront development can work. Columbia’s waterfront almost certainly will have a different feel, but Columbia’s leaders can learn from their across-the-river neighbors.
The West Columbia and Cayce Riverwalk, begun in 2002 and expanded nearly every year since, quickly became a magnet for exercise walkers, joggers or bike riders. Police presence and crime along the riverwalks has been minimal. And development has popped up – 33 single-family homes on the nearly 80 lots in Congaree Park and Riverwalk Circle.
Plus, the extended Guignard family, which through several entities owns large chunks of the waterfront district on both sides of the river, has installed the roads and infrastructure for development around the historic Guignard Brickworks kilns. One bank branch has moved there, but the developers are waiting for the right tenants for the rest of the project.
Charlie Thompson, who handles most of the Guignard real estate projects, is thinking about a hotel and neighborhood retail. Cayce mayor Elise Partin would love to see a pizza restaurant and ice cream shop to give people more reason to climb the ramp from the riverwalk to Knox Abbott Drive.
Several other major projects are in the construction phase on the west side of the river – an apartment complex at the old Fremont Hotel on Knox Abbott Drive, a condo development on Sunset Boulevard and apartments, condos, shops and restaurants in the area known as The Pit, just across the Gervais Street bridge from downtown Columbia. The Pit development will create an interesting problem. The hordes heading to the riverwalk have parked on that vacant property for years.
All of the activity “proves development does grow around recreational opportunities,” Partin said.
Long-existing businesses nearby have noticed the difference. “It’s amazing what’s happening in Cayce,” said Chris Kueny, owner of Sub Station II on Knox Abbott. “Business at my sandwich shop is up 10 percent over last year, which was a record year.”
Progress has been slower on the Columbia side, but important components have been taking root for decades. If this were a shopping mall, the State Museum/EdVenture, Canalside and Carolina Stadium would be the anchor stores already in place. The waterfront park would be the fourth anchor.
The Richland County penny sales tax includes nearly $50 million for road infrastructure through the new Waterfront District. The construction of several large student apartment complexes just across Huger will bring thousands of new consumers to the area.
The required cleanup of coal tar pollution in the Congaree River near Gervais Street will delay some of the Waterfront District development for several years. But in performing that cleanup, SCANA plans to build two bridges over creeks that eventually will be critical to the waterfront park. And the three-year cleanup project will give city leaders time to hone the waterfront plan.
Many of the landowners and community leaders still expect a bit of a lull on the Columbia side. The impact of the student apartments won’t be clear for a year or two, and the coal tar cleanup has the proposed park area on hold.
Thompson doesn’t mind waiting. In fact, he is famously patient.
“Some might say that we move at a glacial pace,” Thompson said of the Guignard family. “That’s by design. Patient development results in good development. If you rush through these things, you very often can stub your toe and end up with something that’s not lasting.”
Those who appreciate the natural beauty along the river are glad Thompson and city officials didn’t rush to build the park envisioned in the Sasaki plan in 2006. It featured an artificial reflecting pool, a granite bulkhead along the river, a concrete amphitheater, and what Granby neighborhood leader Bob Guild referred to a “a mockery of a canal.”
The complaints about the level of “hardscaping” in the plan, along with a major drop in federal funding for such projects, led to the shelving of those aspects of the Sasaki plan.
Thompson and Benjamin both see the park as more natural than in the original plan, with more native trees, less concrete and respect for the 3.5-acre wetlands in the middle of the property. They’d like a path slightly wider and grander than the riverwalk on the west side of the river. And a central gathering spot is a must, to create the front porch feel.
Guild sees the treatment of the wetlands as the key to whether conservation leaders embrace the final park plans. A wider path and more amenities near Gervais or Blossom streets would be fine with him. “The key is for it to be urban where urban makes sense, then celebrate nature where that makes sense.”
“This is a very important urban geography, and I think that has to be embodied in the overall development plan for the riverfront,” Thompson said. “It’s at once trying to be a natural environment that is in an urban context. That’s not an impossible thing to accomplish, but it means people have to be very serious about the financial implications.”
Funding remains a major question.
The Guignards will provide the park land but not the money for improvements, Thompson said. The city and Richland County likely will be tapped for money, and corporate donations or sponsorships will be sought. “It’s going to take a thoughtful public-private partnership to make it all work.”
The Sasaki plan came up with an $86.5 million price tag for the waterfront park, including road infrastructure. With the road paid for by the penny sales tax, and fewer hard structures in the park, the price will be much lower. Benjamin noted that special tax districts often are formed to pay for these sorts of public projects, but that’s not the only funding possibility.
As for maintaining the park, Cayce and West Columbia manage their riverwalks with city funds. Columbia’s parks department could be the manager of a future waterfront park on the east side. But with Columbia’s parks department spread thin to handle its many facilities in recent years, Benjamin said he also would be comfortable turning over the operation to a nonprofit like the one that runs Memorial Park, or to the River Alliance.
What Benjamin refers to as “a loose working group” has been discussing the future of the waterfront for years. They’ll need to make it more formal soon to have a plan vetted and ready by the time the coal tar cleanup is done.
“Many plans through the years have been produced, and they’re all chock full of good ideas,” Thompson said. “Maybe where we’re headed is to cherry pick all the good ideas from the various plans and come up with something the entire community can be proud of.”
If the group decides to visit waterfronts in other major cities, Lee Bussell, CEO of Columbia marketing firm Chernoff-Newman, recommends San Antonio. They could get a sense of the incredible economic engine the River Walk region is along the San Antonio River. They also could see how Columbia has the potential to do it better.
“San Antonio has a tow path,” Bussell said of the thin channeled waterway that runs through that city’s entertainment district. “What we have is an active waterfront.
“Right now, Columbia doesn’t have something that they’re known for. If we could do something special along the waterfront, that could differentiate Columbia.”
Movement toward a new park
Among the other reasons for renewed optimism about the future of the Columbia waterfront:
▪ Progress on riverfront development on the Columbia side, though incremental through the past three decades, has laid important groundwork. In the early 1980s, the Columbia riverfront featured a foreboding 19th-century prison, a hulking former mill building, a bus parking lot and a steel manufacturing plant.
Since then, the prison has been replaced by Canalside residential community; the mill building has been transformed into the showpiece South Carolina State Museum (with a first-class children’s museum, EdVenture, just across the parking lot); and the former Kline Iron & Steel plant has been leveled and plans announced for a mixed-use development on that property with apartments, a hotel, retail space and a parking garage. The future of the bus parking lot is unclear, but it isn’t being used for buses anymore.
Those large projects have set a tone for what’s to follow nearby.
“We need a fully developed waterfront,” said Lee Bussell, CEO of Columbia marketing firm Chernoff-Newman. “If you finish the Gervais to Blossom Street area, that’s the piece that brings it all together. And it’s just as important, maybe more important, because of everything that’s already been done around it.”
▪ The Carolina Stadium baseball complex, opened on the Columbia side of the river in 2009, has demonstrated that when more people are drawn to the area, business follows – even blocks away. Chris Kueny, owner of Sub Station II on Knox Abbott Drive, noted the crowds even flow over the river, parking in Cayce and walking across the highway bridge to the games.
“The Parkland Plaza parking lot is full of cars on game days,” Kueny said. “Where are all those people? They’re certainly not in the Kingsman (restaurant). There’s not room in there for that many people.”
▪ The student apartment boom east of Huger Street will put thousands of young people on the edge of the waterfront. Apartment developments with more than 2,500 bedrooms are under construction between Carolina Coliseum and Huger Street.
Those projects will influence what goes on the 68 acres the Guignard family owns between Huger and the river. The Guignards don’t plan to put student apartments on their property, but they might want to cater in some ways to those neighbors.
“We’re open to a mixture of uses,” said Charlie Thompson, who manages the Guignard family’s real estate holdings. “You have to see what the market conditions demand. To this point, there hasn’t much of a market for anything. I’m hopeful as more people move into that waterfront area that you create a certain demand for supporting commercial uses in the forms of restaurants and shop space.”
▪ The University Foundation owns the 6-acre property between the stadium and Blossom Street and between Williams Street and the river. Russ Meekins, executive director of the foundation, says it has no set plans yet for development, but whatever goes there will “work in conjunction with the baseball stadium.” A restaurant or retail space are among the possibilities.
The foundation gives the university the right to veto any use of the property it doesn’t approve. The city will be given an easement on the portion in the flood plain closer to the river to link the greenway from Blossom Street to Granby Park.
▪ The Richland County penny sales tax includes $50 million for the key roads infrastructure that should jump-start the development of the important district bordered by Huger, Blossom, Gervais streets and the river.
The tax money will pay for an extension of Williams Street through that property, setting up retail and residential development on the high ground between the new Williams Street and Huger. Also, Greene Street will be extended from the USC campus over the railroad tracks, creating an easy connection between the campus and the waterfront.
▪ SCANA’s cleanup of century-old coal tar pollution in the river bed just below Gervais Street will put the renovation on hold for three or four years. But it also will provide a boost. While the full removal plan hasn’t been approved, to get equipment to the river, SCANA plans to build bridges over two wide creeks that run through the property. Those bridges would have been a major expense in the construction of a waterfront park.
The coal tar removal project also will set a timetable for the district’s development. Both Thompson and Columbia Major Steve Benjamin agree the goal should be to have a detailed plan in place so work on the park can begin the day the last SCANA truck drives away.