Columbia Retail Study Urges Linking Main, Lady Streets


Retail Study Urges Linking Main, Lady Streets

March 18, 2008


Lady Street and Main Street are best suited to become downtown Columbia’s shopping destinations, according to a study to be released today by a Washington, D.C., consulting firm.

To help make that happen, the city should join the two streets by connecting their recently completed streetscaping projects and improving the Lady Street crossing at Assembly Street, the study by ERA consultants said.

“There’s a psychological barrier running through downtown, and that barrier is called Assembly Street,” said Economics Research Associates principal Midge McCauley. “We need to make that a little more pedestrian-friendly. People may not understand the importance of that.”

The results of the study will be presented today at the Columbia Museum of Art.

The $215,000 study also included an analysis of retail corridors such as Five Points, Devine Street, Farrow Road, Monticello Road, Two Notch Road and North Main Street. Richland County chipped in $5,000 to help pay for Monticello Road.

Areas other than downtown, Devine Street and Five Points need to attract stores that will serve local residents rather than outside shoppers, the report said.

Despite the need to bridge Assembly, it might be a long time coming, Mayor Bob Coble said.

Streetscaping projects on North Main Street and on Harden Street north of Gervais Street have been in the works for years and are next on deck, he said.

“We’ve spent a lot of money downtown, and other entries into our city have to be priorities; they need our attention now,” he said.

In the meantime, downtown advocates will move ahead with other aspects of the study and look at more creative ways than expensive streetscaping to bridge Assembly, said Matt Kennell, president and CEO of City Center Partnership, which guides investment in the central business district around Main Street.

“There are challenges,” he said. “But there may be stopgap measures.”

In addition to bridging Assembly Street, the city also should provide grants and forgivable loans for facade improvements on Main Street and encourage developers to build in-fill projects on Lady Street toward Main Street rather than Huger Street, the study said.

“People are just not putting money into their buildings” on Main Street, McCauley said. “Some of those facades look like they have been there since the 1950s and 1960s.”

The City Center Partnership already has hired a retail recruiter to implement other aspects of the study. Amy Stone, who has been on the job for five weeks, said the key is matching unique retail stores with the right building or location.

“We have to give shoppers something they can’t find in the suburbs,” she said, adding that that is what has made Devine Street and Five Points successful.

Another key is working to “cluster” women’s and men’s apparel stores on Main Street and Lady Street, the study said.

Main also needs more restaurants “that serve more than one meal,” Stone said, referring to the street’s lunch spots.

In the Vista, businesses such as bookstores, bistros and gift shops would complement the ample restaurants. The old warehouse district should remain a destination for galleries and decorative arts, the report says.

McCauley, who has implemented similar plans in such cities as Austin, Texas, and St. Louis, warned that building up downtown’s retail base will be a long process, especially in these trying economic times.

“We have a long way to go in Columbia,” she said. “But I’ve worked in cities where it has taken 10 years to take hold. The key is to put good tenants in appropriate places that produce good sales.”


• The best locations for downtown retail are on Lady Street from Main Street to Huger Street and on Main Street from Gervais Street to Laurel Street.

• The city needs more sites suited for retail. Only 28 percent of the building spaces on Main Street house retail. On Lady Street, it’s 19 percent.

• Main Street has too many fake facades, tinted windows and unattractive signs. All turn off shoppers.

• There are too many empty lots and parking lots between buildings on Lady Street. The report called it “gap-toothed.”

• Lady Street needs more in-fill development, but it should push toward Main rather than Huger.


• The city should provide forgivable loans and other incentives to entice retailers downtown and building owners to improve properties.

• Lady and Main streets should be better connected by streetscaping and an easier crossing at Assembly Street.

• Downtown needs more retailers that appeal to middle- and upper-income shoppers, such as bistros, delis and shops that sell prepared foods, books, stationery, apparel and home furnishings.

• The Vista should continue as an arts district.

• Downtown must attract shoppers from the suburbs until there are enough downtown residents, employees and travelers to support strong retail.

While I have not reviewed the study, the “highlights” listed in the article above neglect to mention the biggest problem facing downtown retailers – the homeless population. In my opinion, Main Street will not, I repeat will not, be a viable retail location until the City of Columbia changes their approach to dealing with the homeless population. Sad but true.


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