As Main Street Kent continues to work with downtown merchants and property owners to create a Main Street renaissance in Kent, I happened upon a news article describing very similar work in downtown Columbia South Carolina. Admittedly the scale is different but the components that they’re trying to use to renew their downtown, including a downtown presence for the University of South Carolina, arts, parking, unique shops, streetscaping and pedestrian connectivity all ring true to the Kent experience.
Before you read the article, I’d recommend checking out the University of South Carolina’s InnoVista web site to see how the project puts the University at the center of Columbia’s downtown renaissance. I’d say this is the best example of synergizing (is that a word?) downtown revitalization with university aspirations that I’ve come across anywhere. I made sure to share the site with our Kent State folks too.
Here’s the newspaper article:
Retail, residential and office coming together for a Main Street renaissance
By JEFF WILKINSON
When New Yorker Dorothy Garone was looking for a place to open a Manhattan-style bagel shop and deli, the choice was easy.
“Who wouldn’t want the Kress building?” Garone said of the art deco storefront across from the Columbia Museum of Art on Main Street. “Location is everything and this was a match made in heaven.”
Garone plans to open Gotham Bagel Cafe in December when a Main Street streetscaping project is completed. She will be the first new retailer to locate on Main Street after the city finishes the $4.7 million beautification project in the 1500 and 1600 blocks.
Many hope it will mark a resurgence of retail on the venerable street — something experts say is needed to complete Columbia’s growing downtown.
“For any city to be a success, its downtown has to be vibrant and that includes retail,” said Amy Stone, vice president for retail recruitment for the City Center Partnership, which promotes investment in the business district.
“We want downtown to be active and enticing,” she said. “Main Street is a big part of that.”
Over the past decade, downtown has been reinvented to position the city for a 21st century, knowledge-based economy.
The Vista, the Three Rivers Greenway, downtown residential development and USC’s infant research campus, Innovista, all are intended to attract high-tech businesses and their workers, as well as high-income residents and free-spending tourists.
But retail has been the missing link, Stone said.
A recent study of downtown showed Main Street between Gervais Street and Laurel Street — particularly the rows of storefronts in the 1500 and 1600 blocks — as a prime location for new retail stores.
But there are many problems on the street:
• Many storefronts are threadbare and need upgrading.
• Parking is scarce.
• Panhandlers scare some shoppers off.
• Main is separated from the Vista by busy Assembly street.
• Traffic counts, meaning the number of cars traveling down the street, are low because Main dead ends at the State House.
• And the razing of scores of storefronts over the past 30 years for high rises has left few places for new stores to incubate.
Mayor Bob Coble said he hopes the completion of the streetscaping project will be a trigger for renewal of Main Street,
“It’s a great opportunity for renovation and restoration,” he said. “I would encourage people to invest and be part of Columbia’s renaissance.”
But David Lockwood, senior vice president for leasing services for the Colliers Keenan commercial real estate brokerage, said it could take some time for new retail to take hold.
“It will be a slow transition,” he said. “But the health of the entire market depends on the health of Main Street.”
Main Street has been the city’s commercial core as long as there has been a Columbia.
But horse and buggy gave way to the automobile. Desegregation caused many whites to flee to the suburbs. And suburban malls killed downtown department stores.
Then, in the past three decades, whole blocks of storefronts were razed for high-rise office buildings — many built with little or no street-level retail.
All this conspired to effectively remove Main Street as a destination for shoppers.
Today, only the 1500 and 1600 blocks bear a resemblance to the retail district of old. They are a hodgepodge of wig shops, jewelers, clothiers and sundry other retailers, many of whom have been operating there for decades.
But even that base has been eroding.
Although stalwart Sylvan’s and Kimbrell’s Furniture are still in business, the iconic Lourie’s and Main & Taylor Shoe Salon shuttered earlier this year.
Andrew Zalkin, owner of the Army Navy Store in the 1600 block, accuses the city and the City Center Partnership of turning its back on retail through the years in favor of office towers and residential development.
“There was a lack of promotion and publicity,” he said. “And there was a lack of unity among merchants,”
Matt Kennell, president and chief executive of the City Center Partnership, agrees.
But “it was a deliberate strategy,” he said. “You have to start somewhere. And until there was residential and office to support retail, it wasn’t worth the time. But I understand the criticism, and it is warranted.”
Kennell said that because of the success of residential and office, “we can now focus on retail.”
Last year, Stone was hired to pump up recruitment of businesses, he said. Already, she has helped locate four new businesses on Main Street — Uptown Gifts, Dunkin’ Donuts, Wilder Realty and Gotham Bagel.
“It’s working a little better than we hoped,” Kennell said. “We were expecting maybe two a year, and we already have four. And, maybe, we’ll have a couple more before the end of the year.”
Coble is also pushing for a city program to help building owners, particularly in the 1500 and 1600 blocks, replace the dated facades many installed in the 1970s.
“While it hasn’t been presented to council, staff is looking for ways to do it,” Coble said.
Unlike retail, Main Street has seen stunning successes in two other areas: office and residential.
Main has two new high-rise office towers and there is another in the works as high-powered banks and law firms elbow to be nearest the State House in the most impressive office suites.
And residential is thriving.
There are now 110 units on Main Street, both apartments and condominiums, with an occupancy rate of 98 percent. That is a development many people would have thought was preposterous a decade ago.
The father-son team of Tom and Jeff Prioreschi own all of those units.
Columbia’s pre-eminent urban pioneers, the Prioreschis, through their Capitol Places firm, own five buildings on Main, including Tapp’s, Kress and Barringer.
Jeff Prioreschi said that while the condo market is slow, apartments are doing very well. He noted 73 of the 75 apartments that he and his father have in the 12-story Barringer building are leased at rents of $700 to $1,600 a month.
“Gas prices are helping our business model,” he said. “These days, some people just don’t want to commute.”
There might be more opportunities for residential in the 1500 and 1600 blocks, Prioreschi said. “But you really have to pick and choose what your do. We don’t have any project planned at the moment.”
Kennell said that nonhistoric buildings in those blocks could be razed and modern, mixed-use buildings built in their places.
The projects could be similar to the Prioreschis’ 1530 Main building — which includes storefronts, residential and live-and-work units — but still matches the street’s historic architecture.
“There might be opportunity for selective demolition,” Kennell said. “And it would be hard to see someone putting a bank or a law office there.”
While new office space and residences on Main are a boost to retail, there are still challenges.
“Parking,” said Steve Rowland, owner of Drake’s Duck-In restaurant, a Main Street stalwart since 1959.
Parking already was sparse on Main Street before the streetscaping project eliminated four on-street spaces in front of his restaurant at 1544 Main St. to provide a loading zone.
To tackle the limited parking on Main, the city has a parking garage in the works, Coble said.
But many people, particularly females, are not comfortable with parking garages, said Bill Pruette, manager of Sylvan’s, Main Street’s oldest retail store, at 111 years.
“Our customers don’t like parking in garages, and they don’t like walking a long way.”
And the garage’s location is problematic.
The city is planning to build a 600- to 800-space garage, Coble said. It already owns two sites that could be used — one at Taylor and Sumter streets and one at Blanding and Sumter streets. But Kennell and downtown merchants say neither is a good spot.
“It needs to be as close to Main and Hampton as possible,” Kennell said. That intersection is the center of the six blocks of Main Street’s commercial corridor.
Kennell promotes a site at the corner of Assembly and Hampton streets, across from the Richland County Library. But the site is owned by multiple parties and the city has not been able to negotiate a price that is within its budget, Coble said.
Also, a potential buyer for the Palmetto Center wants parking, too, and that has to be figured in the mix, the mayor said.
As the city of Columbia has struggled with the issue of homelessness, Main Street also has carried the brunt of problems stemming from it, mainly panhandling.
There are two shelters in the Main Street area: The Salvation Army on Main at Elmwood and the Oliver Gospel Mission at Taylor and Assembly streets.
The Midlands Housing Alliance, a group of business and church leaders, also plans an expansion of the Salvation Army site.
Another shelter has long been planned by Christ Central Ministries for a site across the street from the Bank of America building at Main and Richland streets.
That shelter has been discussed for years, but no firm plans have been made public.
Panhandlers in the area have led to a perception among many that crime is problem on Main Street.
Heightening those concerns were an armed robbery in the parking lot of the Main Street Methodist Church earlier this year and a rape last month behind the Tapp’s building.
Since those incidents, the city has beefed up patrols around the church and the street, and the City Center Partnership has increased the visibility and the patrol hours of its “yellow shirt” safety and security teams.
Those teams, paid for by partnership dues and a $100,000 city grant, clean graffiti, provide directions and even give people rides to their cars in a golf cart or an SUV.
But most importantly, they are eyes and ears for the police, Kennell said.
Jocelyn Sanders, manager of the House of Fabrics on the 1300 block, has noticed a difference.
“We used to have lots of panhandling,” she said. “But we don’t get that many anymore.”
GET PEOPLE WALKING
The best hope to overcome many of the challenges facing Main is to get people on the street, walking, said Ryan Hyler, director of marketing and research for Colliers Keenan. That creates a built-in customer base, a feeling of security and the image of a vibrant city.
“Without significant pedestrian traffic, it will be difficult” for new retail to take root, he said.
Main Street boosters are excited about Nickelodeon Theater moving from south Main to the old Fox Theater in the 1500 block.
The art house theater hopes to open in early 2010, executive director Larry Hembree said.
It would attract people to the street at night — a rarity now except for diners at Hennessy’s or Mac’s on Main and the occasional evening event at the art museum.
Connecting the Vista to Main Street also would improve foot traffic, Coble said.
“Connectivity” always has been an issue downtown, with its disparate districts divided by wide boulevards.
The main problem is Assembly Street. It divides the Vista from Main Street and Innovista from USC’s main campus. In places, it has six lanes of traffic and two lanes of on-street parking. That creates an intimidating gulf through the center of downtown.
“I know some people who will get in their car in my building (the Capitol Center) and drive three blocks to the Blue Marlin,” Kennell said.
However, a complete, $100-million-plus streetscaping and railroad relocation project for Assembly is years away.
In the meantime, Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corp., which guides investment in the Vista, is advocating creating “pedestrian islands” at key intersections that would make the trip across Assembly less daunting.
“It would be a place where a woman with a stroller would feel comfortable if she got caught between lights,” he said. “And you could do it with paint, a little landscaping and with only losing a couple of parking spaces.”
Garone, who is opening Gotham Bagel, said drive-up and foot traffic, and delivery and wholesale operations all are important aspects of her business.
“We parked at the front of the building at 8 a.m. one morning and there were more people walking on Assembly than Main,” she said. “We hope with some good advertising we can pull them in.”
Garone is optimistic the north end of Main Street will spring back to life when the streetscaping project wraps up in December.
“I’m just grateful,” she said, “that we are opening after it’s finished.”