Bullish on BullStreet
By Kevin Dietrich
Columbia’s central business district has undergone a dramatic metamorphosis during the past 30 years.
From an area with little nightlife, few restaurants or residential units, and a significant number of run-down buildings, the area encompassing Main Street, The Vista and the Riverfront District has blossomed since 1990. The repurposing of the 181-acre BullStreet property promises continued evolution.
Advocates say BullStreet is a 20-year transformation of one of the largest tracts of undeveloped urban land on the East Coast into a vibrant new district in downtown Columbia. They say BullStreet is redefining redevelopment with walkable streets and a mix of residential, retail, restaurant and recreational uses – less than two miles from the S.C. State House and the University of South Carolina.
Today, the business district is full of people, both those who reside in it and those coming from beyond to work, eat and drink at restaurants and bars, and stay at hotels. Areas that were once heavy industry or abandoned warehouses are now home to such locales as the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, Colonial Life Arena and Innovista, the 500-acre research district.
“I remember when we moved into The Vista in the 1980s, there was just one nice restaurant in the whole area. It was in the bottom floor of the AT&T Building, which had recently opened,” said Wayne Adams, president of Adams Group, a Columbia-based marketing communications agency.
A key ingredient to the revival of the business district was the relocation of several railroad tracks, which improved traffic flow in The Vista, Adams said.
“After that, restaurants started coming in, followed by offices, hotels and bars,” Adams added. “Main Street has been slower to take off, but the past few years it’s just been rocking.”
Public infrastructure projects helped lay the groundwork for private investment, according to Bob Coble, Columbia’s mayor from 1990 to 2010.
He pointed to streetscaping on Gervais Street, which began around 1990, and was followed by similar work on Main Street.
“Mayor Kirkman Finlay’s efforts to relocate railroad tracks through The Vista was important, as was the conversion of the old Confederate Printing Plant to a Publix grocery story in The Vista, the construction of the Columbia Art Museum and other critical investments in the downtown,” said Coble, now a partner with the Nexsen Pruet law firm.
Interstate 20 and Interstate 77, both built prior to 1990, have helped fuel growth in Columbia over the past 30 years, giving the area a connection to Charlotte and easy access to manufacturers up and down the Eastern Corridor, Coble said.
Other key projects over the past 30 years include the construction of the Meridian Building and the First Citizens building, and the renovation of the Sheridan and Marriott hotels, all on or near Main Street, along with CanalSide, a mixed-use development built on the site of the old Central Correctional Institute along the Columbia Canal.
Not everything has come up roses in the downtown area. More than a decade ago, SCANA Corp. left its 450,000-square-foot headquarters in the Palmetto Center on Main Street, taking 900 employees across the river to Cayce. SCANA has since been acquired by Dominion Energy Inc.
The biggest project of all is still in its early stages. The BullStreet District, the redevelopment of the old S.C. State Mental Hospital campus along Bull Street, began in 2014.
“The city’s commitment to BullStreet shows that it’s serious about business and growth. It shows that the city is open for business,” said Robert Hughes, president of Hughes Development Corp., the project’s master developer.
Currently there are 500 individuals working in businesses at BullStreet, a number that hasn’t been helped by Covid-19 precautions.
Less than 500,000 square feet of commercial space has been built out; BullStreet is zoned for 3.3 million square feet of commercial space. Of the planned 3,558 residential units, fewer than 140 have been constructed, Hughes said.
On the plus side, $37 million Segra Park, home to the Columbia Fireflies minor league baseball team and largely paid for by the city, has been well received.
It’s important to realize that BullStreet is a 20-year project, Hughes said.
“Every decision we’ve had to make at BullStreet we’ve done so in the context of how will it look 20 years, 50 years, 100 years from now,” he said. “You only get one chance to get it right.”
“BullStreet is a great opportunity for the downtown and for Columbia as a whole,” said Carl Blackstone, president and chief executive officer of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.
“I’m bullish on it,” he said. “It’s had a couple of hiccups due to the economy, but it’s going to be a tremendous asset to our area.”