10 points to fix Five Points? Leaders unveil ‘simple’ plan to lure new businesses

More parking and fewer permitting hurdles could help lure new businesses to Five Points in downtown Columbia.

Those are two of 10 points in a plan unveiled Thursday by a group of local leaders who hope to reinvigorate the urban village known for local shops, restaurants and, especially, bars that cater to college students, which have been the subject of much angst over the past year or more.

Five Points itself has been the center of a Columbia cultural debate, as neighborhood residents, businesses, the University of South Carolina and city government reckon with how to shape the district’s identity moving forward. Will Five Points be known primarily as a late-night college party district? Can it maintain a wholesome, neighborhood-friendly reputation? Can it be both?

In an effort to “renew” Five Points, a coalition of business, neighborhood and local government leaders have crafted a plan they hope will attract new businesses and reshape the reputation of the district. That plan includes waiving water and sewer expansion fees for new businesses in the district; “modernizing” zoning regulations, which currently restrict the height of buildings in the district; and being “flexible” with the city’s requirements for grease traps for restaurants, which can be expensive for start-ups.

It’s a “simple plan” that will encourage new investment in the century-old district and “help us develop this beautiful, iconic neighborhood village back to what we would like to see as a vibrant area,” Columbia City Councilman Daniel Rickenmann said

Other elements of the plan, each of which is geared specifically to Five Points and not other areas of the city:

  • Improve appearance of the city parking lot that sits between Harden Street and Saluda Avenue (a former gas station)
  • Streamline the permitting process for new businesses in the district
  • Increase parking access and availability
  • Expand sidewalk dining
  • Push the city’s economic development office to recruit businesses such as restaurants, stores and hotels to Five Points.
  • Encourage USC and other nearby colleges and universities to promote on-campus weekend social activities to give students more alternatives to partying in Five Points
  • Set a three-year time limit on these initiatives to create urgency for new businesses to move to the district.

“There are some very easy things that we can fix that are a part of this plan that will change the climate of the business culture as we know it,” said Amy Beth Franks, the former director of the Five Points Association who recently purchased the Gourmet Shop, a longtime restaurant in the district. “We are going to have to put our money where our mouth is. We are going to have to stop talking about what Five Points could be ... and we need to just all make it what it needs to be right now.”

The plan overlaps with another initiative recently rolled out by the city, the Commercial Corridor Redevelopment Plan. The goal of the corridor plan is to promote economic growth and investment throughout the city. That program is being piloted in Five Points and should shift every two years to other commercial districts throughout the city.

Rickenmann emphasized that the new initiatives outlined Thursday would be specific to Five Points, though he said some of the strategies could be replicated in other parts of the city.

Five Points is experiencing a season of change. In recent months, at least five bars have shut down, leaving behind empty storefronts. More bar closings could follow, as state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia Democrat who lives in the nearby Wales Garden neighborhood, wages a legal battle against establishments that primarily serve alcohol with minimal food sales.

“Closed doors” and “dirty sidewalks ... flat-out don’t make a good impression when you bring a retailer through town to see what’s going on,” said Rox Pollard, vice president and director of retail services for Colliers International real estate firm, which is marketing some of the vacant property in Five Points. “The plan provides for some much-needed spiffing up.”

The district also has been the center of controversy over closing times for bars citywide — the majority of late-night bars in Columbia are in Five Points, and the majority of their patrons are college students. Nearby residents have complained of drunken students causing disruptions and attracting opportunistic criminals. After much debate, city leaders tightened rules for late-night alcohol service, resulting in fewer bars open past 2 a.m. in Five Points.

As the district’s bar issues play out, area leaders are saying they want to attract a different mix of businesses that would change the character and perceptions of Five Points. The 10-point plan, they hope, is a step in the right direction.

“When I see empty storefronts in Five Points, I don’t see a coming apocalypse for our neighborhood,” said Steve Cook, owner of Saluda’s restaurant and president of the Five Points Association of merchants. “We need the city of Columbia to make it easy for entrepreneurs to locate their business in Five Points. ... Let’s encourage people who want to operate more than just a few days a week and are willing to put time and money into improving and maintaining their business and property.”

It’s not the first plan crafted to better Five Points in recent history, though. In 2008, area leaders touted the “Future Five” plan to reframe Five Points’ reputation as more than just a college party district. It included plans to:

  • Limit building heights to four stories in part of the district.
  • Cap the number of bars.
  • Promote a balanced mix of retail and restaurant businesses.
  • At first to support, and later to prevent, a controversial, six-story retail, condo and parking garage project on Blossom Street, where a Walgreens drugstore now sits.
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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.