Apartment Boom in the Capital City

Student housing on the high rise in Columbia

Since The University of South Carolina was founded as South Carolina College in the heart of the Capital City in 1801, Columbia has unapologetically waved its college town flag. Additional colleges and universities that have followed suit have since reinforced this buzzing reality, and there are now 16 brick and mortar colleges within Richland County alone, which equates to tens of thousands of students who tend to settle as close as possible to their respective campuses. 

Not all of these students originally hail from the area, and many of those who do still choose to leave their parents’ homes for school. In the not so recent past, when a student packed a steamer trunk and plastic bins for college, he or she unquestionably lived in an on-campus dormitory, complete with at least one roommate and a communal bathroom, for all four years of the undergraduate experience. That notion is changing as the landscape of the colleges, student mindsets and wallets shift in a new direction. Choices for off-campus housing are increasing with each new student housing development that is built or planned by large, mostly out of state, companies specializing in creating student communities with state-of-the-art luxury amenities. 

Over the past 10 years, a fluctuating number of beds have been available to students at the University of South Carolina, the most central campus in Columbia and the one with the largest student population. In 2003, there were 6,923 on-campus beds available between residence halls and Greek housing. Demolition of previous structures like the Honeycombs have made way for residence halls that are mostly reserved for students in the South Carolina Honors College. The Maxcy residence hall recently has been refocused to house a community consisting primarily of international students, and the Wade Hampton, Simms and McClintock dormitories for women are slated to be closed for $27.2 million worth of renovations this summer and into the next academic year. That leaves the campus with a projected 6,773 beds available for incoming freshmen, Greek housing, honors residences, as well as upperclassmen students wanting to live on campus. Incoming freshmen who do not live at home with their parents are required to live on campus for their first year. Wes Hickman, interim vice president for Communications for U.S.C., says, “In fall of 2012, we had just shy of 7,300 beds here on campus. In fall of 2013 with renovation of the women’s quad, we’ll lose another 550, so we’ll have approximately 6,800 beds available.” 

Dormitories on U.S.C.’s campus typically housed two students in one room that fit two beds, two desks, a closet or two, and enough space for a mini fridge and microwave. Some were set up suite-style where four students share a bathroom between two dorm rooms. Now, students expect suites and apartment-style living as the standard on-campus housing option. As U.S.C. continues to renovate its dorm rooms, fewer of them will be the traditional style as students seek a greater amount of privacy and personal space.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, in response to a delay in colleges transitioning their housing options to suite or private-style housing, luxury student apartments began opening in communities like Cayce and West Columbia. These apartment complexes cater to students’ needs and provide additional amenities such as swimming pools, shuttle buses going between the complex and campus during school hours, and 24-hour computer labs with internet access. Many of these apartments are set up where four students separately lease out a bedroom in an apartment unit – with each having their own keyed bedroom locks – and share a communal living space, kitchen and eating space, and bathrooms. 

These student apartments first began springing up just west of the river in Lexington County in part due to the City of Columbia’s zoning laws that make it illegal for more than three unrelated people to live in the same dwelling. In May 2012, a new law was designed to help fill a demand for student housing options. Brian Cook, zoning administrator for the City of Columbia states that in this new ordinance, “Private developers can build four-bedroom units, but in certain zoning districts no more than 60 percent of a development can consist of four-bedroom units.” Proximity to campus also was attractive, as were the amenities and lack of responsibility towards keeping all of the bedrooms in the apartment filled, since the bedrooms are leased to each student individually. 

Zoning laws in unincorporated Richland County also don’t put restrictions on the number of unrelated people living together, so more complexes have popped up on the outskirts of the city limits in the industrial Bluff Road area, where proximity to Williams-Brice stadium is another draw for students who are avid fans of tailgating and going to football games. 

With student housing a hot market and an ever growing undergraduate body at the universities and colleges in downtown Columbia, dozens of commercial real estate developers have set their sights on locations closer to campus. Here they could build dense luxury student apartments on typically less than desirable property and charge top dollar to a predetermined audience. Busy students who need places to live aren’t always willing to sacrifice the time and effort of looking for and maintaining detached single-family residences for rent in suburban neighborhoods near campus in Olympia, Cayce or Shandon. “There are more students than beds, which creates demands in the private market,” says Wes. 

Many of the new student housing developments being planned are in the news for their unexpected locations, as in the case of The Hub at Columbia, formerly known as the Palmetto Center that housed the operations of SCE&G until they moved to their Cayce campus. The $50 to $80 million dollar development by Chicago-based CoreCampus, LLC, is set to bring 851 beds to Main Street in the fall of 2014. Why did a Chicago based company choose to develop in Columbia? “We’ve always had our eye on the Columbia market. The school has had solid enrollment growth, and we believe that both the City and the University will see increased growth for many years to come,” says Ben Modleski, spokesperson for Core Campus. “We know that there is a need for more student housing within walking distance of campus.” The Main Street landscape seems to welcome the idea of having a large student population in the area, which will bring disposable income ready to be spent at nearby restaurants, coffee shops and retailers. The City itself is also doing what it can to help bring these students closer to its more enlivened city center. “Mayor Steve Benjamin and the city administration played critical roles in achieving the necessary approvals and agreements concerning the Sumter Street Parking Garage which will be the parking area used by our residents,” says Ben.

In recent headlines, The Palmetto Compress was purchased by the Columbia Development Corporation in early May. This is a result of a contractual arrangement with the City of Columbia that has put up a fund of up to 7 million for the purchase and stabilization of the building. CDC has already begun marketing the building for redevelopment as a public private partnership project with the aim to save the structure, a unique building and one of only a few left in the country. 

Possibilities for development so far include residential, mixed use and lodging. There are 12 developers on the list who have expressed preliminary interest in the building. The building is 320,000 square feet. 

The National Register of Historic Places does not prevent demolition of a building. Rather, it makes the building eligible for certain tax credits and other advantages when strict historic preservation standards are maintained. To prevent demolition of a building it must be a designated Landmark by a local government. The city of Columbia has agreed to Landmark the Palmetto Compress in the future. 

Real estate developer Richard Burts tranformed a formerly decrepit community center not too far from the warehouse site. The refreshed 701 Whaley has become a vibrant and successful event venue, arts center and office space since it opened in 2008. Recently, Edwards Communities has said it is still in talks with the city to re-position their proposal for the site into something that could work for both sides, though a City of Columbia official has claimed to have multiple developers interested in purchasing the site. 

There may not have even been a need to worry about the warehouse’s fate, says Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corporation. “Just because someone is planning to build doesn’t mean they are going to build,” he says. “There are a lot of projects looking to get into the market. With 150 to 800 bedrooms in each complex, my suspicion is that the first few that start construction will be the ones that happen. The others will not get built at all.” 

Will Columbia become saturated with student housing? Fred says, “I don’t think we’ll be overbuilt, at least not by much.”

This new idea of student housing is different from the massively sprawling apartment complexes targeted toward students that are situated farther out on Bluff Road or in Lexington County: it will have to be much denser due to the smaller availability in acreage. It is being planned closer to the growing western portion of campus, which has grown in prominence and capacity over the last several years thanks to Greek housing and the Innovista research campus, as well as the new Darla Moore School of Business located at the corner of Assembly and Greene streets slated to open in December 2013. The Moore School moving to the west end of campus will bring thousands of students who will want to walk or bicycle to class instead of dealing with the ever increasing expense and rapidly decreasing availability of parking on a campus. The university is currently seeking proposals to partner with a private developer to build an estimated $35 million dollar mixed-use space that would contain retail, classroom and non-university-owned housing. This would bring hundreds of beds to the area and is proposed to go in the current student and staff parking lots boxed in by Park, Blossom, Green and Lincoln streets. This partnership with a private developer would be considered on-campus housing that may or may not end up being owned in whole or in part by the university. Wes says, “Market research actually demonstrates that there is a market of upperclassmen students who want to live on campus.” 

What does this mean for an ever-expanding college town? Fred Delk’s concern with the latest student housing boom is the long-term sustainability of the projects that developers are proposing for the university, students, residents and for the city itself. “There’s a lot of speculation right now, and people are trying to be on the front of that curve,” says Fred. “The controversy has become about the building and the appropriateness of the garden-style apartment development in downtown Columbia because of the density,” says Fred. “There are a lot of ways to think about what is sustainable long-term.”