City to purchase main downtown post office for possible Finlay Park expansion

The city of Columbia wants to purchase the main downtown post office.

The 196,000-square-foot building and its 9.5 acres of property is presently owned by a private trust that has placed it on the market. If the purchase is approved by City Council next week, the city would have to honor the U.S. Postal Service’s lease through 2036, so the post office would remain on the site.

Although the building appears from Assembly Street to be only one story, it is actually a four-story building built behind a bluff that drops 90 feet to the park’s ground level. At ground level, there are expansive parking lots, loading docks and maintenance facilities sitting mostly unused because their functions were transferred to newer facilities decades ago.

City officials plan to negotiate with the U.S. Postal Service to have some of the parking dedicated for Finlay Park visitors and possibly make a tract of land near the intersection of Assembly and Laurel streets available for private development, either office or residential.

Also, the park could serve as a natural bridge between the Main Street and Vista districts, if a way could be found to make crossing busy Assembly Street more inviting to pedestrians.

“It just makes sense to purchase this property,” Columbia Assistant City Manager Missy Gentry said.

The property is presently owned by the Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Foundation through the Honolulu Rapid Transit Co. The foundation is based in both Baltimore, Md., and Honolulu, Hawaii. The foundation since 1980 has provided $2.2 billion in grants for housing, health, jobs, education and community services in the United States and Israel.

It is unclear why ownership is in the name of the transit authority.

The city has a contract to buy the land and building 1601 Assembly St. for $3.85 million.

Finlay Park

City Council member Howard Duvall said the excess land would provide much needed parking if and when the city begins upgrading the park. The extra parking could also help land a developer to take on the former Veterans Affairs building at the corner of Laurel and Assembly, he said.

“Having (the post office) makes that whole area much more valuable,” he said.

Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corp., which encourages and guides investment in the Vista, said a residential tower on the northeast corner of the property and/or conversion of the VA property could make the park safer and continue the momentum for downtown residential development.

“If the park is going to be long-term successful we have to have people living there,” he said. “Then we’ll have a 24-hour park.”

Matt Kennell, president and CEO of City Center Partnership, which encourages and guides investment in the Main Street District, said the purchase could be an avenue to unite Main Street and the Vista.

“You can’t really improve things unless you control things,” he said. “Ownership of the post office gives the city the ability to manage what happens on that side of Assembly Street. So there’s now a big opportunity to make it a destination, to make that connection between the core of downtown and the Vista.”

The lease to the U.S. Postal Service stretches back to 1966. The Honolulu Rapid Transit Co. purchased the property in 1965.

Finlay Park opened in 1991 as Sidney Park and was renamed in 1994 for the late-Mayor Kirk Finlay. It has been plagued with maintenance and other concerns in recent years.

The 14-acre park’s landmark fountain which, mimics a mountain stream slowing down the bluff, has been dry since 2015. The park also has the stigma as a hangout for the homeless.

The park did get new playground equipment in 2017.

In December, the city began official discussions with the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte to collaborate with Columbia officials on an as yet unannounced project. The Whitewater Center was the only company that responded to a recent call for project ideas at the downtown park.

Selling part of the park to a private entity like the Whitewater Center would help fund an estimated $15 million in improvements.

The Whitewater Center is a nationally known outdoor recreation center, set on 1,300 acres about 20 minutes outside of downtown Charlotte. It’s a popular recreation and events venue in the Carolinas’ largest city, featuring activities such as whitewater rafting and kayaking, paddle boarding, rock climbing, rope courses and mountain biking, as well as regular concerts and festivals throughout the year.

Jonathan Comish, president of the Arsenal Hill Neighborhood Association, said the acquisition of the property, along with the Whitewater project, could make Finlay Park relevant again.

“The post office could revitalize the park if the city follows through,” he said. “If the (Whitewater) development goes through and they redevelop the post office, everybody gets what they want.”

Jeff Wilkinson has worked for The State for both too long and not long enough. He’s covered politics, city government, history, business, the military, marijuana and the Iraq War. Jeff knows the weird, wonderful and untold secrets of South Carolina. Buy him a shot and he’ll tell you all about them.