The City of Columbia zoning board gave an approval Tuesday that will make way for the construction of a long-discussed private student housing tower on Assembly Street, right next to the main branch of the Richland County Library.
The board voted to approve a special exception for Chicago-based development firm CRG’s plans to construct a 16-story student apartment tower — which is being dubbed The Edge — on a cluster of parcels at the northwest corner of Assembly and Washington, beside the library.
The city’s zoning laws would only allow for 144 beds at the site, which is just less than an acre. With the zoning approval, the developers are planning 679 beds in 206 units on the site. The bottom five floors of the 16-story tower would be a 405-space parking deck. The developers also are planning 175 bicycle parking spaces in the project. Paperwork filed with the city indicates The Edge would be an $80 million project.
The Edge development has been gestating in Columbia for four years. One road block for the project was the building that once stood at 1401 Assembly, which was constructed in 1914 and housed a number of notable African American businesses through the decades. Back in 2016, Historic Columbia said it wanted to see the building saved. However, that building was ultimately demolished. CRG Senior Vice President Mark Lecocq told Free Times the company is willing to discuss putting a plaque at the site acknowledging its history.
Lecocq and CRG associate director of development Andrew Savoy said units in The Edge will range from one bedroom up to five bedrooms.
According to Mayor Steve Benjamin, the developers of The Edge will likely be pursuing tax breaks that the City of Columbia and Richland County announced back in July in hopes of luring big commercial and residential projects to Columbia. The city and county are offering a 10-year, 50 percent joint property tax break for large commercial and residential projects that exceed $30 million in investment.
The tax breaks — which are similar to deals the city and county offered to student housing developments near the University of South Carolina’s campus in 2014 and 2015 — are meant to stoke development and generate new revenue in a government- and nonprofit-dominated city where large swaths of property are not on the tax rolls. City officials say two-thirds of the land in Columbia is untaxed.
"The Edge is another example of the incredibly exciting economic activity we are seeing all across Columbia and Richland County," Benjamin told Free Times. "This project will add nearly $80 million to the to the tax rolls and help us continue to build a robust economy off the future."
The Edge developers will need an easement from Richland Library for the project. In a letter to the city zoning board, library board Chairman Johnny Ray Noble and Executive Director Melanie Huggins say the library plans to move forward with granting such an easement.
Also, Matt Kennell, CEO of downtown property owners' group City Center Partnership, sent a letter to the zoning board saying the partnership was "100 percent supportive" of the zoning request that makes way for The Edge to proceed.
On Tuesday, Lecocq told Free Times construction would likely begin on The Edge in the fall of 2020.
One citizen expressed concern about The Edge during the zoning board meeting. Commercial real estate broker Jim Daniel said he's worried the demand for student housing will soften in years to come. Numerous private student dormitories have been built across Columbia in recent years, with more under construction. And USC has announced big plans to build more on-campus housing on the south side of its campus.
"This market appears to be over-saturated," Daniel said. "[Some of the units in The Edge] are four and five bedrooms. If the market eventually reaches the point where there are not enough students to fill this building, four and five bedrooms doesn't convert to a regular apartment complex. That would be my concern."
Lecocq responded by saying CRG has gotten a third-party market study that forecasts the demand for the property in the future, and the developers are comfortable moving forward.
"To the convertability standpoint, from an operating standpoint what happens to fill units should market demand not be there is really an adjustment of rent and price, not of use," Lecocq said. "It's just far more efficient to lower rent sufficiently to fill up the building as opposed to spending thousands of dollars attempting to refurbish a unit to make it into a different size."
There are a number of major projects in various stages of planning or development in or near downtown Columbia.
For instance, in the BullStreet District, plans are continuing for 200 apartments in the historic Babcock Building. The first phase of the redevelopment of that building — with its instantly recognizable red cupola — could be completed by 2021.
Also at BullStreet, North Carolina’s Proffitt Dixon Partners is planning construction of 260 apartments across from Segra Park. That project is utilizing the city and county’s recently approved tax breaks.
The Edge would be located just a block from Finlay Park, the aging 18-acre expanse that has long been eyed for revitalization. The city recently announced plans for an $18 million revamp of the park, and is working on a partnership with the U.S. National Whitewater Center for a recreational amenity in a portion of the park.
There also have been talks about the construction of a hotel above the city's parking garage at Lady and Assembly Streets, not far from where The Edge would be.
And developer Ben Arnold is planning the Columbia's first four-star hotel in the Vista near the convention center. That 11-story, 150-room project — called Hotel Anthem — would be a Hilton-branded property.