Take in the spectacular river views from the new Black Rooster rooftop bar, savor the melt-in-your-mouth French toast at Cafe Strudel, and enjoy a wood-fired smoked chicken and pickled jalapeno pizza with a craft cocktail at Terra. Weekends in West Columbia offer afternoons of strolling by the river, browsing for a rare book at Ed’s Editions, or a Friday night perusal of the State Street Art Crawl. People are increasingly crossing the Gervais Street Bridge for dining and shopping experiences, with more and more coming to stay.
The late advertising executive Marvin Chernoff was one of the first Columbia business people to see the possibilities “across the river,” creating a very popular Italian restaurant called Mangia! Mangia! at the corner of State and Meeting streets. After it closed, the concept of fine dining on State Street was continued in 2006 when Chef Mike Davis renovated and reopened the space as Terra, a lively bistro specializing in upscale Southern cuisine.
Today, State Street and the surrounding blocks of the city’s River District are bursting with possibilities for residents, visitors, developers, and business owners. “It seems like it’s happening all at once, but the truth is we’ve been working on this for a number of years,” says West Columbia’s Director of Economic Development B.J. Unthank. The community has always embraced the pioneer spirit from its inception on the west bank of the Congaree River since the 1880s, though it did not take official shape until a New Hampshire millionaire, Aretas Blood, chartered the Columbia Mills Company, which was responsible for building the Columbia Mills textile plant, the first fully electric textile mill in the world.
Brookland was incorporated in 1894, taking its name from the large number of brooks that ran through the area. The U.S. Post Office called the mill village “New Brookland” because a town was already named Brookland in South Carolina. To strengthen its connection to the capital city, in 1936 Brookland renamed itself West Columbia.
The neighborhood along State Street and the river is now designated as the New Brookland Historic District and is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The application for that status, filed in 1978, states that in its mill village days, Brookland was considered to be “the finest mill village south of New England.”
Today, the same area is on its way to becoming a model for pedestrian-centered redevelopment. One huge, highly visible step in that transformation is the Brookland complex of buildings on the corner of Meeting and State streets, just across the Gervais Street Bridge from downtown Columbia.
With three of four buildings complete, renters moved into apartments this summer, and the Black Rooster, a French bistro with rooftop bar, opened in late August. Once finished, Brookland will feature restaurants and retail at the street level, plus more residential units, parking, and commercial space.
“Brookland has been a catalyst for us that has spurred additional growth in the area and a lot of interest,” B.J. says.
While the $40 million project is beginning to fulfill its promise, it has not been problem-free. Early on, construction caused some foundation issues on Meeting Street that were resolved. A business owner with a consignment shop adjacent to the complex sued developers for damage to her building. Parking has been an ongoing problem for businesses and residents of the mill village during construction. However, the free public parking garage in the Brookland Development opened in September, creating 125 new parking spaces for shoppers, diners, and Riverwalk visitors. In October, an additional 77 parking spaces were made available in the Carraway Park at the Riverwalk, a place for children to play together. These 202 spaces, combined with the additional parking created behind Terra Restaurant on Meeting Street in the Interactive Art Park, provide well-lit, ADA-accessible, art-infused parking options that meet the parking needs for the blossoming district.
State Street business owner Mark Plessinger has had a front row seat to watch Brookland materialize. “It’s been a somewhat controversial project, but it’s helping to address the biggest weakness we had. We needed a higher concentration of retail and restaurants.”
Mark’s business, the eyewear shop Frame of Mind, is in one of several buildings in West Columbia owned and renovated by Joe Taylor, with State Street Development, LLC.
“Activity breeds more activity,” says Joe, talking about the boost that Brookland is providing for West Columbia. “Once you get something going, it can take on a life of its own. I think that’s kind of what’s happened over here.”
Central Location and People-Centered Spaces
Joe points out that in addition to new projects energizing the River District of West Columbia, a number of other factors are making the city attractive as well. Many of them have to do with people-friendly features that increase walkability and encourage business owners to invest in their property. The interactive art park on Meeting Street is one of Joe’s favorite examples.
According to B.J., the project began with a simple wish to make a city parking lot more attractive. “It was a lot of hard work by staff to come up with a plan that would make it a place not only to park your car but also a place to walk through and enjoy,” B.J. says.
Now the lot includes a covered space for a weekly Meeting Street Artisan Market, interactive art installations that invite visitors to stop and play, as well as much-needed parking spaces for cars behind businesses on State Street. The art park is also a link to new developments coming to West Columbia, including Savage Craft Ale Works on Center Street (the redevelopment of historic City Hall) and businesses along Meeting Street. Part of the larger plan is to encourage people to venture on foot beyond the few blocks that State Street has to offer.
A former S.C. Secretary of Commerce, Joe gives credit to West Columbia for having the right idea about maximizing public dollars to promote private investment. He says the parking lot demonstrates how this concept works. It started with West Columbia purchasing the old city hall and fire department and securing a block of land to expand parking. “The city sells the building to a craft brewery and recoups their investment. That land goes back on the tax roll,” he says. “Then they build this really nice parking lot. Everyone who owned the land abutting the parking lot paved theirs to match the city.”
The private investment does not stop with the paving. Some businesses have also been inspired to make renovations to their buildings. And Joe says he has noticed people are no longer littering the lot with beer cans and cups. “There’s pride,” he says, “and that equals taking better care of it.”
For Mark, who moved Frame of Mind from downtown Columbia to State Street five years ago, the attractiveness of West Columbia was irresistible.
“What would I say to a business owner looking to move into West Columbia?” Mark says. “You are insane if you don’t. West Columbia has a lot of opportunity. It’s a city on the rise. It has the public’s attention. The cost of doing business is very low over here and doing business with the city government is so much easier.”
“West Columbia is in a great spot, between the capital city and Lexington,” says B.J., who believes unique, locally owned businesses are also a big part of his city’s appeal. “We really strive to serve our businesses and make it easy to get their permitting, zoning, and licensing. We created a one-stop shop. It’s all done in the same area of City Hall. They don’t even have to go down the hall.”
With a new designation for Triangle City — where Meeting Street intersects with 12th Street and Charleston Highway — as an economic opportunity zone, B.J. hopes West Columbia will become even more appealing. Opportunity zones provide both immediate and long-term capital gains tax incentives to investors in order to accelerate community development.
Stepping Beyond State Street
As State Street fills its storefronts and adds new restaurants, the next wave of development will stretch west from the River District. Joe is developing a Meeting Street office building and a property in Triangle City, plus 34 homes on Spring Street behind Cafe Strudel.
“There’s a lot of opportunity left,” Joe says. “Triangle City has got an enormous amount of potential.”
B.J. points out that West Columbia is experiencing a renaissance in other areas, too. “Look at the growth of Lexington Hospital and the 378 corridor. There’s a lot going on out there.”
A recently installed bike lane already links the Riverwalk to Triangle City. West Columbia Communications and Technology Director Anna Huffman says she can envision people flowing easily between the two in the next few years. She points out that Terra is about a mile’s walk from Zesto.
“Eventually, you’ll park somewhere in Triangle City or the River District, then spend your entire day in an area that’s family friendly and also an entertainment district,” she says, painting a picture of the not-too-distant future.
While growth in the River District has resulted in parking being harder to come by in some spots, Joe insists demand for parking spaces is not all bad.
“When you’re doing things right, people want to come and participate,” he says.
Joe thinks West Columbia has the potential to model a new type of city living for the Columbia metropolitan area. He imagines a West Columbia resident taking an Uber or bus to work downtown on a Friday morning, possibly having happy hour cocktails at a Main Street restaurant, then walking home across the Gervais Street Bridge and enjoying dinner on State Street.
“On Saturday morning, you take your iPad and walk over to Cafe Strudel and read your paper, then walk down to the river or to Soda City Market, walk home, take a nap, then decide which of 10 restaurants you want to walk to for dinner. You’ve lived a whole weekend in Columbia without driving a car,” Joe says. “That’s cool.”
Both B.J. and Joe say friendly competition among the metropolitan area’s municipalities is good for everyone because it gives residents more options and inspires city governments to work a little harder and innovate a little more.
“West Columbia is providing a wonderful example of what happens when you make it easy for people to invest in your community,” says Joe. “I know that sounds simple. But that’s the bottom line.”