Will the number of people living in downtown Columbia increase tenfold — to 40,000 — by 2030?
Predictions for such growth were discussed Tuesday morning at a summit on the city’s future, where presenters talked about what Columbia must do to prepare for that many new residents.
But one downtown developer is wary. “Business goes in cycles,” Ben Arnold said.
Since the 1990s, Arnold has made heavy investments in downtown Columbia — from one of his initial projects, a sprawling office and entertainment complex on Gervais Street that includes Jillians and Tsunami, to his ongoing renovation of the former Moe Levy’s location on Lady Street.
Arnold sees the rosy forecasts about downtown’s future with innate satisfaction that his investments have been part of the success. But he knows growth could be inhibited by anything from an economic downtown to inadequate transportation systems. He’s particularly concerned about a lack of high-quality jobs to attract young professionals, which are the lifeblood of any urban center.
“We’re riding a wave of momentum now,” Arnold said Tuesday after the meeting of civic and business leaders held to discuss downtown’s future. “But I don’t know if we can get to 40,000 (residents) without jobs.”
The 40,000 prediction was attributed to the Linneman Quarterly Letter, a commercial real estate journal, and discussed at “2020 Columbia,” a continuing series of discussions sponsored by the Free Times weekly newspaper.
Leaders of Main Street, the Vista and Five Points updated the group on their progress in 2015. They said the city needs to better connect downtown’s various districts, as well as improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists.
And they stress plans need to be made for absorbing large numbers of residents, businesses and workplaces in the new Bull Street neighborhood being built on the 165-acre site of the old S.C. State Hospital, a few blocks from Main Street.
“The next step is Bull Street, Bull Street, Bull Street,” said Matt Kennell, chief executive of City Center Partnership, which promotes and guides investment in the central business district. “We need to find a way to connect it to the other three districts.”
The estimate of downtown’s population — 4,000 — was drawn from 2013 statistics. It includes people living in four districts — Vista/Innovista, Five Points, Main Street and Bull Street — and their immediately adjacent neighborhoods. It doesn’t include the 3,500 who have moved into private student housing projects downtown or on-campus student residences.
The Columbia region as a whole is expected to grow by 375,000 residents to 1.3 million by 2030, according to the Linneman report. The centerpiece of the region will be downtown, which has seen unprecedented investment of $1.3 billion since 2014.
Experts attribute the skyrocketing downtown population to several factors: A growing University of South Carolina; empty nesters drawn to a more vibrant downtown; a continued migration to the South by northerners seeking a better climate and more affordable lifestyle; and a national trend toward urban living, particularly among millennials.
And the ongoing boom in downtown living, sparked by student housing, is causing a ripple effect across downtown Columbia:
▪ Having 800 students in the 21-story former Palmetto Center — a development called The Hub — helped take Main Street’s comeback to new levels. One developer is even talking about building a 25-story residential tower on a nearby parking garage.
▪ An estimated 5,100 students living in student housing complexes across downtown have amped up development in the Vista, where eight restaurants have opened since the October flood.
▪ Five Points is getting its own student housing project, the 660-bed Station at Five Points at the corner of Gervais and Harden Street. Already, a long dormant stretch of Harden across from the Food Lion shopping center is coming to life with a new restaurant and three new, as yet unnamed service businesses.
▪ Bull Street is slowly filling up with 125,000 square feet of office space now being built. Plus, construction on an 85-store retail center is expected to start this year. Bull Street developers say that the students — with their parents’ credit cards — are a big part of their business model.
But there are concerns, experts have said
The lack of a tax base in a city dominated by a state university, state government and a military installation could inhibit Columbia’s ability to provide services. And the city needs to more aggressively grow jobs to both retain graduates of the University of South Carolina and attract other young professionals.
Kennell, of the City Center Partnership, said that the vibrant downtown now developing will help sell USC’s Innovista research district and Columbia as a whole to companies seeking an affordable and exciting place to locate.
“The prospects of companies coming into this area because of the investments in the Innovista and downtown will not only create jobs, but good jobs in the future,” he said.
How to keep downtown growing:
Participants in Tuesday’s 2020 Columbia summit say these steps must be taken to ensure Columbia’s continued growth:
▪ Create high paying jobs
▪ Better connect downtown districts
▪ Improve access for bicycles and other alternative forms of transportation
▪ Increase pedestrian safety
▪ Find innovative ways to handle parking