COLUMBIA — For more than a decade, Columbia leaders have wanted the city to be the sort of place where people downtown live, work, grab a bite and shop without getting into a car.
With an apartment building spree fueled by the University of South Carolina’s aggressive growth and tax breaks intended to keep that construction focused downtown, Columbia’s city center has transformed itself with thousands of new residents in a matter of just a few years.
But even as Columbia’s downtown boom comes to fruition, the city’s ambitions of creating a vibrant, walkable downtown haven’t been fully realized.
Developers have opened few new retail spaces in the city’s new residential corridors. More cars are coursing through the arteries where apartments were built and snarling traffic. And rents at downtown apartments, some of which include resort-style amenities like movie theaters and saunas, have risen sharply.
After a whirlwind development boom, Columbia is taking a breather. The university’s growth and local officials’ appetite for tax incentives — the factors that lit the fuse on the student housing explosion — are waning. So is the number of apartments under construction.
But as the city enters a lull, planners are pushing efforts to ease Columbia’s apartment growing pains to address complaints by neighbors, the university is preparing for an ambitious new wave of on-campus construction and boosters hope to encourage a new wave of development to give its new downtown residents more things to do.
Priming a boom
A decade ago, USC decided that its sprawling campus would extend west, all the way to the banks of the Congaree River. It laid out a vision to replace parking lots and warehouses with apartments, research labs and a giant waterfront park.
Those plans — presented in 2007 and dubbed Innovista — were quickly derailed by a recession that gutted the university’s budget and threw the real estate industry into a tailspin. But the financial fallout would ultimately prime Columbia’s downtown development.
Facing deep funding cuts from the state Legislature, USC ramped up its enrollment, taking in thousands of new students and using their tuition dollars to fill its depleted budget. The university — now close to 32,000 full-time students — has grown by about a third in the last decade.
Class sizes swelled, and students crowded into dorms, occasionally assigned to makeshift rooms when space ran low. Apartment developers from places such as Atlanta, New York City and Philadelphia eyeing Columbia found plenty of interest from Wall Street, where investors saw student housing as a safe niche in a shaken real estate industry.
With that backdrop, Columbia's development-minded mayor, Steve Benjamin, championed plans to reshape the city's sleepy downtown, which fell silent most days after 5 p.m.
The city pushed Richland County to offer builders an enticing deal: a 50 percent property tax cut, in return for investing $40 million in student housing. Four projects took the offer, constituting the core of a boom that would see the number of downtown apartments more than double in four years.
By last October, the city center had nearly 3,700 apartment units, according to the Charlotte-based market research firm Real Data. Most of them had room for multiple tenants, compounding the impact on the city.
Complaints about new student housing often mix with broader concerns about USC’s growth.
There's frustration with traffic backups that make otherwise short trips half-hour ordeals. There are concerns about whether the city has enough cops and firefighters to keep up with so much growth. And there are perennial issues with rowdy students living down the block, leaving beer cans scattered in their wake.
But they typically tie into a common theme: planning. Or as Bob Guild, the president of the Granby neighborhood association, puts it: "unplanned chaos in the surrounding residential neighborhoods."
"I don’t think there was ever a thought about a plan," says Guild, who adds that he’s encouraged by the city’s growth, if not the headaches that come with it. "Change is inevitable. It’s just a matter of managing it."
The city appears to have undertaken only limited analysis of how a surge of new residents would affect traffic. Some developers commissioned reviews of the apartments they were proposing, but those studies predicted minimal effects and didn't consider the broader changes happening downtown.
By most indications, the development has had an impact: Data collected by the state Transportation Department shows that thousands more cars are driving on the city’s main roads, especially by USC’s campus. Between 2010 and 2015, traffic grew by as much as 20 percent on nearby arteries while highways farther out typically posted only modest increases.
Some work has begun on dealing with traffic. New bike lanes and fixed-up sidewalks have gone in around the Innovista district as part of a countywide program funded by a 2012 sales tax increase with $81 million set aside over two decades to promote walking and biking.
In town, work has started on a greenway running through the Vista to the neighborhoods just north of the city, costing $1.4 million so far. And the bus system has redrawn its route map to create a downtown loop and increase frequency.
Even so, living in Columbia without a car is still a challenge. Residents need more businesses in the city center catering to their day-to-day needs, said Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corp., the city’s economic-development arm. Most errands still require a car.
And while there has been a retail revival on Main Street and in the Vista, there hasn’t been much activity near the new apartments because developers are focused on renovating existing storefronts instead of new construction, said Ron Anderson, the Columbia-based vice president of research at Colliers International.
If the rapid wave of development spurred fears that Columbia was heading toward a real estate bubble, the apartment market has so far shown few signs of bursting, though it's slowed a tad.
Only one student apartment building — on Assembly Street across from the Statehouse — is currently being built. When a developer asked for credits to build student housing at the old psychiatric hospital site on Bull Street, Richland County Council voted it down, deciding that taxpayers had done enough for the redevelopment effort.
And while the university will keep expanding to cover rising costs, growth will be far more moderate, spokesman Wes Hickman said. USC expects to expand its freshman classes by about 100 students annually through 2025. Still, the university is making room for new students with plans to tear down four residence halls and build apartments that will addabout 2,500 more beds on campus.
Outside campus, developers are still interested in building in Columbia without incentives to lure them here, Delk said.
Two more student housing projects have been proposed on Assembly Street, and developers have floated another near Williams-Brice Stadium on Bluff Road. And plans for two mixed-use developments on Huger Street near the South Carolina State Museum are "well down the road," Delk said.
Despite all the new units, residential vacancy rates downtown have risen only slightly — to about 14 percent — in part because two developments opened after most students had signed leases.
Rents have pushed upward across the city, according to Real Data. The cost of a two-bedroom apartment has gone up more than 20 percent over the last five years, to $905 a month.
"It's nuts," Anderson said.
The increase is led in part by the higher prices that student developments command. Developers appear to be competing over location and amenities instead of price, and students have been willing to pony up. A two-bedroom student apartment costs, on average, $1,339.
In return, students can increasingly rent apartments that are within walking distance of campus and loaded with amenities — resort-style pools, game rooms, gyms and sand volleyball courts.
Take Sam Thibault and Allie Martin, both sophomores from Massachusetts. The two live in Greene Crossing, a Pulaski Street development that filled a long-vacant lot not far from Colonial Life Arena. They chose it partly because it was a new building with a pool, a gym and furnished rooms.
And it's close to entertainment and classes. The two say they walk to the Vista, to USC's baseball stadium and to campus, though Thibault said it's a half-hour uphill hike to her psychology classes.
"For the price, it has a lot," Martin said. "It's new, and it's furnished."