Columbia area residents who grew up in the city in the 1960s recall when Cardinal Newman High School was practically located in the country on a vast expanse of otherwise empty land. Then as development progressed along the Forest Drive corridor over the decades, the Catholic school was no longer isolated but surrounded by commercial properties.
News in 2015 of its relocation to Northeast Columbia brought lots of attention to future plans for the former school property. Today the buildings have been cleared, and the land is vacant where students once studied and played. Local Forest Acres residents and travelers along Forest Drive are watching to see when construction will begin on the mixed-use project that will feature green space, retailers, and a mix of townhouses and apartments.
The plans take the long-time site of Cardinal Newman High School and bring a feel and lifestyle that will be different for this bedroom community, supporters say. “There’s nothing like it in Forest Acres,” says Ned Miller, development director for The Beach Company, the Charleston-based firm behind the project.
Not all local residents were in love with the idea when it was approved in 2016. Residents aired concerns about the flow of added cars onto Forest Drive, which continues to see backups at busy times of the day. Nearby residents were also worried that the development would send more traffic down neighborhood side streets to avoid Forest Drive.
The plan for the project, called Forest Acres Village Square, has been adjusted in a bid to accommodate these concerns, and it coincides with a state project designed to help improve traffic flow on Forest Drive by better timing the many streetlights along the corridor. With the departure of the high school and the coming of the new development style to the 12.4-acre site, Forest Acres is experiencing more changes than it has seen in years.
Post High School
Cardinal Newman School first held classes as a private Roman Catholic high school on the Forest Drive site in 1961. In January 2016 the school, which was accommodating more students and needed more space, relocated to a 50-acre campus on Alpine Road.
The school’s plan to move made it clear that the site would become available, prompting debate over what would work best there, according to Forest Acres Mayor Frank Brunson. A big-box retailer was discussed as a possibility, but a multi-use project that incorporated residences and businesses seemed a better fit when taking into consideration the business corridor of Forest Drive and the residential neighborhoods behind it, he explained. The mayor is quick to note that while the city was working with potential developers, it was not trying to dictate what became of the site. “While we don’t do developments, we encourage development, then approve quality projects,” he says.
The Beach Company advocated for a plan that brought a desirable mix of small retail and residential space and seemed to be the best fit. The project is a sizable one, estimated to cost almost $60 million to complete. It will feature up to 256 apartments (recently named The Cardinal), including as many as 10 townhomes on the site, with the townhomes on the section farthest from Forest Drive. About 42,000 square feet of space will be available for retail tenants, most of that adjacent to Forest Drive in separate retail buildings with parking. Some retail will be on the ground floor of the apartment building. It will also have a parking garage with up to 660 parking spaces, set behind the residential buildings. The retail portion of the site has been named Cardinal Crossing, according to Ned, in keeping with the former school location connection.
While the project is a change for Forest Acres, it is not the first The Beach Company development in Columbia. The company has developed both the CanalSide apartments near the Congaree River as well as the Providence Park apartment complex in the Northeast.
The company was looking to bring a distinct sense of place to the Cardinal Newman site — in particular a walkable village feel with pathways for both its residents and the community. “The site is just so compelling,” Ned says.
Because the Forest Drive corridor is so commercially popular, Ned believes putting some retail space on the site makes sense. No merchants have been announced, but the goal is to create spaces that will welcome restaurants, boutiques, and personal service businesses. “There’s strong demand for retailers to be in that neighborhood,” he adds.
Ned says that The Beach Company sees Edens’ achievement in the development of Trenholm Plaza as a model to follow. Trenholm Plaza underwent a renovation in 2008-2009 and added restaurants and high-end boutiques just around the corner from the site of the old Cardinal Newman School, attracting local boutiques and larger chains alike. “What the folks at Trenholm Plaza did is amazing,” Ned says.
The new development’s walkable connections will be extended to the adjacent shopping center to the east of the site, Forest Park. The Beach Company has worked with Forest Park’s owners to connect the two sites, including routing car traffic through the existing stoplight onto Forest Drive. “That is one step that will help alleviate the additional traffic onto Forest Drive,” points out Ned.
The connection should also provide customers with additional walking destinations in the center, including a new grocery store. Lowes Foods, a North Carolina-based grocery chain, has expanded into Columbia, starting with two stores in Lexington. It will take over the former Bi-Lo location at Forest Park, with a store opening projected by the grocer in mid-2018.
This walkable, connected zone coming to the middle of Forest Acres should be attractive to a range of potential tenants, but Ned sees particular interest on two sides of the demographic spectrum; it should be attractive to recent college graduates and even graduate students, as well as empty nesters who no longer want the hassles of maintaining a home and yard.
“I get the sense that there’s some interest from residents in the surrounding neighborhoods,” he says.
Some neighbors, however, were worried when word of the project began to spread. Opposition to the plan formed, and even a Facebook page entitled “Save Forest Acres” aired objections and encouraged residents to contact city council. Alternative ideas were put forward on what to do with the site, including the suggestion that it become open green space. The most frequently cited concern with the project was traffic.
It is undeniable that Forest Drive is heavily used and suffers congestion throughout much of the day. A traffic study conducted for The Beach Company by Kimley-Horn and Associates of Columbia cited one primary trigger for backups stemming from the turn lanes where Forest Drive meets Trenholm Road. The study’s recommendations suggested making the turn lanes leaving Forest Drive two lanes wide to accommodate more cars and adjusting the timing of the lights.
That change could be implemented by the S.C. Transportation Department, but Frank explains that the agency and community will wait to determine the effects of another effort — a system costing about $1 million to improve the timing of the stoplights on Forest Drive was ordered even before the Cardinal Newman project was proposed. A similar system was put in place to help relieve congestion plaguing downtown Lexington. “We should have some improvement to traffic flow,” says Frank.
Changes will be installed during 2017 and are expected to take effect toward the end of the year, but some time will be required to find the best working configuration for the lights. Its range extends from the Interstate 77-Forest Drive interchange all the way across Forest Acres to the intersection at Two Notch Road.
While the mayor hopes that the system will bring some relief, he emphasizes that traffic has been a continual problem on Forest Drive and is not, in his view, a reason to block the Cardinal Newman plan. “All you can do is better manage it,” Frank says. “If you’ve got a place that everyone wants to get to, you’re going to have traffic.”
Ned says he hopes that neighborhoods will see little additional cut-through traffic as a result of the redevelopment. Only the townhomes at the back of the property have street access that links to Gamewell Drive, which is connected to the surrounding neighborhood. Other residential and retail traffic will be connected onto Forest Drive. He hopes that giving apartment dwellers the option to walk to nearby businesses will cut down on the overall traffic impact.
Ultimately, Ned believes that many Forest Acres residents feel positively about the plan for the site, based on the feedback he has received. “I’m encouraged that the neighborhood is excited about what we’re doing,” he says.
Criticisms did spur changes that improved the project. For example, the number of residences was reduced by 50, and the retail square footage was trimmed by 15,000 square feet as the approval process went forward. That served to give the project the room it needs to be open, green, and welcoming, says Ned.
When will the results be seen? Cardinal Newman’s old building has been removed, and work is expected to begin by the end of 2017 once the final permits are obtained. It will then take two years to fully complete the project.