Main Street grew from ghost town to 1,000 residents in 20 years. So what’s next?

A pictorial history of Main Street Columbia

Photographs from the John Hensel Collection at USC's Caroliniana Library show how the city has changed since 1950.
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Photographs from the John Hensel Collection at USC's Caroliniana Library show how the city has changed since 1950.

Twenty years ago, you could walk down Main Street after dark and not encounter a soul.

Heck, even 10 years ago, when a few dozen pioneers had begun calling Main Street home, there still was very little life after 5 p.m. here in the heart of Columbia.

And yet, within the next year, the 36-block Main Street district will for the first time approach 1,000 year-round residents, not to mention several hundred college students who bring immeasurable vitality during the school year.

It’s a milestone for an evolving downtown, potentially signaling a coming wave of further growth and development in the city center.

“We’ve talked for years about getting to the tipping point, and I think we’re there, from the downtown residential point,” said Matt Kennell, director of the Main Street District and City Center Partnership business alliances. “We really don’t have to sell ‘You ought to come downtown’ anymore. ... People do like it.”

A sampling of what could follow in the next few years:

At long last, retail — something other than restaurants — should make a long-awaited comeback on and around Main Street, Kennell said.

Restaurants tend to follow residents, and stores tend to follow restaurants, Kennell said. And stores are the hardest thing to nail down, he said.

But, he said, “having 1,000-plus year-round residents ... will help us as we try to bring more shops like shoe stores and women’s boutiques and these things we’ve been trying to recruit for years. We have a better chance of getting those kind of retailers now than we would have five or 10 years ago.”

More apartments will come online, and even condos could see a rebirth, as rental and sales rates naturally rise to the point that building for residents is more and more appetizing to developers, predicts Tom Prioreschi, who, along with his original development partner Ron Mohling, took a risk on opening the first modern apartments on Main Street at the turn of this century. In a few weeks, Prioreschi’s Capitol Places’ brand will double its footprint in the Main Street district with the opening of 1321 Lofts on Lady Street.

It’s been a slow crawl to 1,000 full-time residents, and the number’s not quite ready to take off, Prioreschi said. But the time is fast approaching when residential density downtown will multiply, Prioreschi said.

“We need a little more buzz. We need a little more pizzazz like we have on the 1600 block (of Main Street) that is just blowing it off the charts. ... And then we’ll be self-sustaining,” he said.

Something other than cars will thrive on the streets. The Blue Bike bike share program already has multiple docks on Main Street, and The Hub student apartment tower is one of the most popular ride-share stops in the state, Kennell said.

Walking and alternative modes of transportation will continue to increase and improve in the district as residential density rises, Kennell predicts.

Energy and activity will spread north toward Elmwood Avenue and south past the State House, Kennell believes. Expanded streetscaping already is on tap “to make it a more attractive area where you want to get out and move around,” he said.

Some 300 new residents could be living in the district by this time next year, with the opening next month of 132 apartments at 1321 Lofts at the corner of Lady and Marion streets (two blocks off Main Street) and the upcoming renovation of the three-building Keenan complex into 109 apartments just across the street.

Those future residents, along with the roughly 700 full-time and 800 student residents already living on Main Street, owe something to the brave apartment dwellers who first gave Main Street a chance back in 2000.

“There was a residual demand built up” to live downtown, said Prioreschi, who remembers having almost no trouble renting his first Capitol Places apartments in 2000, despite there being few attractions downtown at the time.

Approaching the 20-year anniversary of Capitol Places, the developer recognizes his big move to put residents on Main Street once was a foolish thought to some.

At that time, who could have predicted the desolate downtown would ever become a desirable place to live? Very few people did.

Early on, Prioreschi’s appraiser “started laughing and said, ‘You’re going to put residential on Main Street in Columbia?’” he remembers. “He says, ‘You actually think somebody wants to live there?’”

But “I knew that it was working all over the country, so why wouldn’t it work in Columbia?” the developer said. “It’s a model that was emerging and coming back. Downtowns were coming back everywhere.”

Capitol Places’ first one-bedroom apartments in the Kress Building at the corner of Main and Hampton streets rented for a little more than $500, Prioreschi said. (They run about twice that price now.) One of his first tenants worked in a downtown advertising firm. A bread company shared the building with the apartments.

About the same time the Kress Building opened, the Columbia Museum of Art was opening in an old Macy’s department store across the street, setting the stage for the area’s slow but sure revitalization.

In the two decades since the museum and Capitol Places moved to Main, a slew of attractions have followed: Mast General Store, the Nickelodeon Theatre, Tapp’s Arts Center, the weekly Soda City Market and a hearty variety of restaurants and bars.

Hundreds of apartments have followed the Kress Building, including several more projects by Capitol Places, The Palms and the Land Bank Lofts.

And a major catalyst for Main Street was the opening of the 20-story Hub student apartment complex in 2014, which put hundreds of feet on the streets for three quarters of the year when college classes are in session.

The majority of the district’s transformation from dull 9-to-5 business center to round-the-clock entertainment hub has happened in just seven or eight years.

But it took a daring vision and a bit of risk to set off the dominoes.

“There were people that said it was ridiculous, but some of us had faith,” Kennell said. Prioreschi and his partners “had a vision of what Columbia could be. They saw something that maybe some of us that were here didn’t see.”

To celebrate Capitol Places’ landmark 20th anniversary and its influence on downtown Columbia, there will be a reception at 1321 Lofts on Tuesday, Jan. 29. The new apartments, which are available for lease starting in February, will be open for tours.

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Sarah Ellis has reported on Columbia and Richland County since 2014. She graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in journalism. She’s probably skipping happy hour to go to a County Council meeting.