Posted tagged ‘Columbia’

Main Street Columbia? Why on Earth…?

May 17, 2010

Public and private investment aiming to rejuvenate Main Street has been significant and sustained for years.  For the record, I am pro-Columbia, so, when business took me to the Columbia area last Wednesday, I took advantage of the opportunity to attend an event titled, “Why Are You Here?”

The event, promoted (and organized?) by the state chapter of the Urban Land Institute, explored the question of Main Street’s identity as a fine and performing arts destination.  The impending relocation of the state’s non-profit cinema, the Nickelodeon, to a once-and-future theater very near the Columbia Museum of Art spurred the discussion. (Click here to see the project.)

The event at the former Fox Theatre was poorly attended, but the enthusiasm of speaking panelists representing the arts was not dampened.  The panel discussed topics ranging from Columbia’s status as a music scene to the attraction of Main Street as a place to set up shop. 

The panelists noted that Columbia is a “tertiary” market for cutting-edge music tours.  Among the reasons: events in Columbia do not draw because the city has no critical mass of nightlife and entertainment venues.  Instead, the city is pegged to draw for popular country music acts and has-beens.  (The exception: innovative jazz.  Go figure.)

Business owners noted Main Street’s unique environment as a reason to invest in the location.  They defended their decision in that their distinctive businesses (exclusive eyewear, acoustic music) necessitate distinctive destinations.  For them, Main Street’s mix of historic buildings and high-rises stands apart – a unique place. 

Recognition of Main Street Columbia as a destination throughout the broader community has been a question mark for at least a couple decades.  Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the city does not seem to have an identity as a strong music scene, with a place on the calendar for innovative acts.  If the metropolitan area’s center is not a destination for its own citizens, how can one expect it to be so for outsiders?

But what of the jazz scene on South Main?  The role of Five Points for nightlife, driven by the college crowd, is long-established. Panelists, moreover, noted the Vista’s niche as a visual arts destination (notably, with some adversarial consternation).  Perhaps Main Street can be the missing link that ties the various districts together, each with a distinct role.  Some leadership seems to exist: staff of the City Center Partnership was in attendance.  One speaker noted the recent election of a forward-thinking mayor (Steve Benjamin).  Their challenge: to reform the image of South Carolina’s capital city as a place and a destination.

Do South Carolinians Dislike Cities?

May 2, 2010

Two articles about two South Carolina cities appeared in the Greenville News and The State (Columbia) within a couple days of each other. The State article reports a 28-storey building proposed in downtown Columbia in the vicinity of USC’s Innovista campus. If built, it would be the second tallest building in South Carolina. The article suggests the project could breathe life into the “struggling” research campus.

Meanwhile, the Greenville News calls its minor league baseball stadium in the city’s West End transformative for the Upstate. Fluor Field’s occupants are, of course, the former Capital City Bombers. The article discusses the impact the stadium has had revitalizing the West End and does not question the City government’s investment to attract the stadium.

Some do question government’s place in investing in city centers. The short answer is Detroit. Given that city’s current condition and reputation, how can southeastern Michigan, let alone the city proper, compete to attract private investment, employers, and talent?

In a recent visit to Columbia, I asked aloud, “Why do people dislike Columbia?” My wife’s response: “South Carolinians don’t like cities.” If this is the case, has Greenville successfully overcome it? Most South Carolinians express dislike for Columbia. The most frequent complaints I hear are heat and concrete.

I maintain that Columbia’s a nice city. Its downtown has experienced significant public and private investment, not unlike Greenville. Shandon and Cleveland Park are both beautiful neighborhoods. Are not Harbison Road and Haywood Road virtually indistinguishable? The actual difference in temperature, of course, is small; it’s not as if Greenville is in the mountains like Asheville. The cost of living in both is quite low, especially in comparison to nearby Asheville, Atlanta, Charleston, and Charlotte.

I offer two notable differences: urban design and shade. Greenville has managed to weave its notable improvements into a single path. One can walk from the Bi-Lo Center, under Main Street’s canopy of mature trees shading sidewalk cafes, through Reedy River Park, past the Peace Center, and on to Fluor Field.

Columbia has most of these components: bricked Main Street, Gervais Street dining, Congaree greenway, the Koger Center, the new Colonial Life Arena. The connection missing is physical and literal. The typical visitor to one of Columbia’s destinations rarely experiences the others.  A critical aspect is the width of Assembly and Huger streets.  The less fleet among us walking Gervais cannot cross Assembly in one traffic light cycle.

And secondly, shade? Such a seemingly minor aspect! But shade is at a premium in cities. It mitigates both, the heat and the concrete.
The idea of urban heat island effect is real. A city is measurably hotter than its surroundings due to the increased presence of concrete and asphalt surfaces reflecting sunlight. 

Shaded area, then, is valuable, preceptibly and tangibly valuable. Main Street Greenville’s restaurants earn more profits thanks to pleasurable location and sidewalk dining; not to mention, this translates to higher tax revenues for the City.  Trees reinforce a mere perception of livability. Greenville even has trees planted in the median of I-385, the most important entryway to its downtown.

Shade cannot be introduced to a city overnight, of course. Greenville planted its Main Street trees in the 1970s. Columbia’s younger trees have yet to reap the same benefits.

Oddly, street trees are very difficult to introduce. Some local government engineering departments forbid them in public rights-of-way altogether. State regulators allow very few species and even then places hurdles in front of them. Most new road projects in South Carolina seem to require wide swaths of concrete and asphalt and even wider rights-of-way, in which mature trees are cleared as if they were extraneous to the city. Assembly and Huger might be easier and safer to cross than most new or widened roads across the state.

As South Carolina expands its transportation network and builds its cities and towns, its governments are actively replicating what South Carolinians do not like about Columbia and discarding what they do about Greenville. And doing so at the expense of municipal bottom lines.