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THE NEXT NEW COLUMBIA: Is downtown headed for new urban gridlock?

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With the University of South Carolina’s downtown campus growing by leaps and bounds, and new construction for hotels and other projects taking up more and more surface lots, parking in Columbia is becoming a premium.
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With the University of South Carolina’s downtown campus growing by leaps and bounds, and new construction for hotels and other projects taking up more and more surface lots, parking in Columbia is becoming a premium.

Picture this: A downtown Columbia with more than 10,000 residents – about 10 times more than live there now.

They live in sprawling housing complexes for students attending the University of South Carolina or in converted office buildings dotting the Main Street area, or in new high rises lining Huger Street – even in residential towers built on top of parking garages.

These new residents fill the streets day and night, walking or biking to jobs and school, restaurants and bars. They live there – they don’t need a car. They dart in and out of shops onto busy sidewalks, then jostle across the street in large groups at busy corners.

Cars and buses, meanwhile, jam the traffic lanes that are swelled by fleets of mopeds. Trying to park? That’s a whole new kind of negotiation.

Think this is a vision of a distant future? It likely will be a reality within five years. And it starts in 10 days.

That’s when 1,600 students move into new apartment complexes in the Vista and nearby Olympia. They’ll be followed by another 3,500 in two or three years.

While USC students will lead the way in this mass migration, 350 luxury apartments and condos are planned at the Kline Center at Huger and Gervais streets. And Hallmark Homes wants to build a 29-story residential tower on top of the Lady Street garage – then look at another five garagetops after that.

Can the city’s transportation systems handle the new traffic, both on the streets and the sidewalks? And more importantly, can cars, pedestrians and bicyclists coexist safely?

“I think we’re about to find out in a couple of weeks, when those students start walking around,” said Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corp., which helps guide development in the Vista. “I hope we don’t have any treacherous situations.”

Here are five issues that experts say are crucial to getting around in the downtown of the (near) future:

Narrowing of Assembly Street

The issue. Many view Assembly Street – particularly at Gervais Street, the state’s busiest intersection – as the biggest impediment to improving non-motorized transportation in the city.

In places it is four lanes wide, not including turning lanes and the two rows of parallel parking along a central boulevard. In all, it could be the equivalent of a seven-lane highway for pedestrians.

It is a main artery through downtown, controlled not by the city, but by the S.C. Department of Transportation – an agency often viewed as more interested in moving cars than calming traffic.

The rows of cars parked along the center of the street are problematic and dangerous. And it is a gulf dividing the now-well-established entertainment district that is the Vista and the emerging residential center along Main Street.

Urban planners have called for Assembly Street to be narrowed to a four-lane corridor by eliminating the parking spaces and building soil- and plant-filled bump-outs, which shorten the distance pedestrians have to cross the street at intersections.

USC already has done similar work for four of Assembly’s blocks, from Blossom Street to College Street, in front of its Darla Moore School of Business, although students say it is still a challenge to cross.

What’s going on now. Columbia requested a $145.3 million grant from the State Infrastructure Bank to beautify, narrow and make more safe the entire length of Assembly Street, from Elmwood Avenue to Rosewood Drive. It included a related project that would construct a railroad overpass near Assembly and Whaley streets.

The state bank turned back the beautification project. It was more open to the railroad project. City officials are now re-evaluating both projects.

“As we continue to see more pedestrian traffic in that corridor, especially students, (narrowing Assembly Street) becomes increasingly urgent as a matter of public safety,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said.

What’s next. Waiting on funding.

Gervais Street walkability

The issue. Gervais Street, which runs in front of the State House down to the Congaree River, has become the lifeline of the Vista. But, like Assembly, it’s also a major, four-lane entryway into the city, controlled by the Transportation Department.

In the late 1990s, it was the city’s first thoroughfare to be beautified and improved in a process called streetscaping, when the Vista was still mostly a rundown warehouse district.

Those street improvements are credited with providing the impetus for new businesses to come in – mostly bars and restaurants – eventually leading to today’s bustling entertainment and arts corridor.

But success also brings challenges.

As the Vista grew, the number of pedestrians grew also, many frequenting the numerous bars along Gervais. Andres Duany – the famed Miami architect who set the vision for the redevelopment of the S.C. State Hospital campus on Bull Street – called crossing the street “death-defying.”

Four years ago, the Vista Guild merchants asked the city to calm traffic on the street. They wanted molded concrete crosswalks that resemble brick – a technique that causes bumpy roads and naturally makes motorists wary. They also asked the Transportation Department to lengthen the time traffic lights are red to give pedestrians more time to cross. Transportation officials said “no.”

So, instead, the city decided to install “bump-outs” at key intersections, which shorten the distance it takes to cross the street. But the city didn’t install any crossing devices at all at Pulaski Street, where most of the new students will cross Gervais to shop at the Publix grocery store on the other side.

“We have more pedestrians out there now than ever, and we’ve got another 3,000 or so coming soon,” said Vista Guild president Richard Burts. “I don’t think we’re going far enough.”

What’s going on now. In addition to the Pulaski crossing, Vista boosters now want to improve some of the streets connecting or near Gervais with proper sidewalks and other improvements. They include Lady Street between the Vista and Main Street, Park Street between Gervais and Senate streets and Gadsden Street between Gervais and Lady Street. They also want improvements to the new Vista Greenway at its entrance a the old railroad tunnel at Lady and Lincoln streets.

What’s next. Getting the projects firmed up, on the city’s priority list and funded.

Parking challenges

The issue. With USC’s downtown campus growing by leaps and bounds, and new construction for hotels and other projects taking up more and more surface lots, parking is becoming a premium.

The city has within the past decade built two new garages in the Vista and one near Main Street, at Taylor and Sumter streets.

But the Main Street area still has a deficit of 1,500-1,800 parking spaces, which will only increase.

The Park Street garage in the Vista is often filled by guests of the adjacent Downtown Columbia Hilton hotel, and by public events in the nearby Colonial Center, Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, Music Farm and, now, USC’s new alumni center.

The garage at Lincoln and Washington streets presently is little-used. But the Hyatt Hotel on Lady Street is now parking its guests there. And a connecting Aloft hotel that’s under construction will eat up more spaces.

City officials will negotiate with developers on future projects, encouraging them to partner with the city to build public garages with their projects.

As for finding on-street parking in the future? It will still be there. But good luck finding a space.

What’s going on now. Plans are being formed for two or three more garages in the Vista and Main Street areas.

What’s next. Settle on a number. Identify sites. Decide how big the garages should be. Identify funding.

“It’s about finding land, capacity and funding,” said city parking director John Spade.

Accommodating bikes and mopeds

The issue. With the bulk of the new residents being students and young professionals, the city is about to see a dramatic increase in the number of mopeds and bicycles on the street.

For instance, during the school year, mopeds line the Main Street sidewalk outside The Hub, an 850-bed student housing complex in the 21-story former Palmetto Center office tower. About one-quarter of the students living there don’t have cars. And, because of the proximity to USC’s campus, many others never move their cars from the garage and they only drive them when it’s time to go home to their parents.

“Lots of them have a car and a moped,” Spade said.

Also, a private company, Scootaway, co-owned by Mike Campbell, former candidate for lieutenant governor and son of the late Gov. Carroll Campbell, is renting mopeds for $2.99 a half-hour by smartphone app at 30 commuter-friendly locations around the city.

As with a bike exchange, a scooter may be picked up at one location and returned to a different location. And the company has plans for rapid expansion: 50 mopeds are expected to swell to a fleet of 150.

As for bicycles, downtown has very few bike lanes and is only now beginning to implement its Walk Bike Master plan, which identifies bike routes throughout the city. But the plan focuses on routes though traditional residential neighborhoods, not the most urban parts of downtown where most of the new residents will live.

What’s going on now. The city has broken ground on its first bike route in the Edgewood neighborhood, around C.A. Johnson High School and the city’s Drew Wellness Center. But what of bike traffic on downtown commuter streets?

The Assembly Street improvement project had a bicycle lane included, but that project is being reconsidered.

What’s next. Continue to work on solutions. Also, plan for more places to park bikes and mopeds.

Alternatives to using your own wheels

The issue. A growing downtown could mean a chance for changing attitudes on transportation. When driving and parking become more difficult, there’s a need for alternatives made easier. In addition to bicycles and mopeds, walking and mass transit are likely to play a larger role in downtown routines.

“To a large degree, it’s going to be forced by the problems of traffic and parking, and that’s starting,” Delk said. “The more people that are here, the more people want to come.”

Walkability and public transit aren’t just buzzwords in a growing Columbia. City leaders are counting on them – and investing in them – as signs of a maturing downtown culture.

What’s going on now. The Midlands transit system, the COMET, has restored and extended routes and hours thanks to millions in funding from Richland County’s 1 percent transportation sales tax, which has distributed more than $111 million to transportation-related projects in its first two years of collection.

The transportation tax also is funding a number of pedestrian-oriented projects. Among the most significant to downtown is the extension of the Vista Greenway.

The Vista Greenway, currently stretching underground along Lincoln Street from Lady to Taylor streets, is set to undergo its $1.1 million second phase of construction this year. It will extend from Taylor Street through Finlay Park to Elmwood Avenue. The trail will connect neighborhoods north of Elmwood Avenue to the Vista, creating a safe and accessible pedestrian corridor to and from downtown businesses.

What’s next. Construction on phase two of the Vista Greenway is expected to begin this year, with the new trail section possibly opened by next spring.

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