COLUMBIA — A real estate development of more than 75 acres is expected to bring new growth to north Columbia, a part of the city that often has been left behind as investment went elsewhere.
Azurest at Heritage Creek, announced in November, is a privately funded project that will bring single-family and multi-unit homes and retail space to a site near Interstate 20 on Mason Road.
“This definitely will be a game-changer for North Columbia,” said Cecil Hannibal, executive director of the Eau Claire-North Columbia Development Corp.
In addition to improving the quality of available housing, it should bring the kind of shops and other small businesses that are part of what makes a neighborhood livable, said Columbia City Council Member Sam Davis, who represents the area.
“It’s really going to add some of the basic amenities that every progressive neighborhood should have,” Davis said.
Needing the growth
North Columbia has been a less affluent area of the city historically, and that has been reflected in lower investment.
According to a 2017 retail real estate report by commercial real estate firm Colliers, north Columbia had a far lower stock of retail space than other districts of the city, listing about 350,000 square feet of space compared to more than 3.5 million square feet in the Harbison/St. Andrews area and almost 4 million square feet in Northeast Richland.
Even with that lower supply, north Columbia had the highest rate of vacant retail space at almost 15 percent, compared to 9.2 percent in the Northeast and just 1.3 percent in the adjacent downtown district. North Columbia also had by far the lowest average requested rent, according to the Colliers report.
North Columbia has been seeing some growth recently, prompted in part by a city streetscaping project that has revitalized the appearance of a stretch of North Main Street closest to the hot downtown real estate market.
Retail businesses including restaurants and shops have been opening in the wake of the streetscaping, including the coming relocation of the iconic Columbia snack retailer, Cromer’s, to 3030 N. Main St. on Feb. 1.
The Azurest project should prompt growth over on north Columbia’s northern edge, giving the area added economic vitality on both sides, Davis said.
“It’s going to function as a catalyst for that part of the city,” he said.
While Azurest is a private investment, the city has been working to make sure that other north Columbia facilities are up to par, with Greenview Park recently renovated and Hyatt Park scheduled for renovation.
“The amenities that we’ve put there are consistent with what we’ve done throughout the city,” Davis said.
Boosting the community
The Azurest project will start with single-family homes, with the first work possibly as soon as two months from now, according to Willie Tompkins, who owns the land.
Tompkins, owner of Bostick Tompkins Funeral Home, has invested in real estate projects before, and said he liked the site’s easy connections to Columbia’s interstates.
It’s not certain yet how many homes that Azurest will have when it is complete, Tompkins said, but paperwork filed with the city said it could include up to 85 single-family homes and up to 95 townhomes.
The site also is projected to have multiple small restaurants, plus boutique shops and small office space, according to the city filing. Tompkins projects that the full development could take three years.
Tompkins said he wanted to do something to boost the community with the land, as did its previous owners, the Montieth family. The Montieth family played a major role in Victory Savings Bank, which for decades was the only black-owned bank in Columbia.
The main involvement for city officials will be to help guide the project through permitting and other city processes, Hannibal said. No one from the project has asked for city dollars, Davis said.
One audience for the residential property on the site could be the colleges in north Columbia, which includes Columbia College, Columbia International University and the Lenoir-Rhyne graduate program, Hannibal said.
Tompkins said the early response to the project from the nearby neighborhoods has been positive, including calls from those hoping to buy a new home in the development.
“A lot of people love it,” Tompkins said.