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McClatchy-Tribune  08/09/2014 3:37 AM ET
Unique student living brings life to key 'hub' of Columbia revival [The State (Columbia, S.C.) :: ]

Aug. 09--COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A decades-long push to add a vibrant residential component to Columbia's Main Street takes a major step next week when The Hub at Columbia fully opens its doors.

Nearly 850 mostly University of South Carolina college students and young professionals are moving into the 21-story Palmetto Center, converted over the past 18 months from office space to luxury apartments in a $40 million major renovation. The majority will move in Aug. 14 and 15.

It is a tipping point for Main Street, which has been undergoing major redevelopment since Mast General Store opened there three years ago. Since then, the street, which was once a daytime-only destination mainly for office workers, has been slowly transforming to add an emerging nightlife scene.

Adding hundreds of new round-the-clock residents is expected to keep the momentum rolling forward.

"There's a lot of excitement among the merchant community," said Matt Kennell, president and CEO of the City Center Partnership, a 12-year-old urban management and planning group formed to promote public space, economic development and retail recruitment in the city's core. "We think it adds to the diversity and brings a whole new dimension to the area."

The project has been at 100 percent occupancy for several months, said Michelle Carswell, property manager for Chicago-based Core Campus, which owns The Hub. The company is "thrilled with the immense interest" the ultra-modern apartments have generated, she said.

The new residents who will fill the complex's 848 beds in 260 suites will more than double the number of people who live on Main Street and the public excitement is palpable:

-- About 100 Hub residents who paid extra to move in early on Aug. 1 were met by bankers from at least two downtown financial institutions who helped the youngsters unload their cars and haul their belongings upstairs to their new apartments.

-- A few local businesses had stations set up in the former office tower, even as the final throes of construction were still underway, giving out gift cards and promotional discounts to the early arrivals.

-- A dozen new restaurants have opened in the past year as renovations moved forward. And a crowd of banks have consolidated their presence at the ground zero of the city core, Main Street -- all in anticipation of new people coming.

'It's new ground'

But for all the excitement a large wave of new residents brings to the downtown -- and for all the work put in over the years to make it finally happen -- no one knows for sure how Main Street Columbia will be affected by having pedestrians who now call the area home.

It's the first time since S.C. Electric & Gas left the Palmetto Center for new digs in Cayce in 2009 that the building will be fully occupied as the city swaps 1,000 daytime office workers for 848 round-the-clock residents.

"It's new ground for us," said Kennell.

Safety issues have been raised with increasing car and pedestrian traffic. And safety of the residents living in the complex also was an issue during the project's planning stages. The company addressed those concerns by using electronic card access, security cameras in common areas of the building and upgraded lighting in the parking garage. They also have said they plan to staff the building with resident assistants 24 hours a day.

Despite the concerns, the benefits of having new residents on Main Street are undeniable, many say.

Like other downtown enthusiasts, Kennell has taken the time to get out on the streets in the new downtown, eat at some of the sidewalk cafes and take in -- if not revel in -- all the arriving new faces and new levels of activity.

Bourbon Whiskey Bar, for instance, is one of the new businesses on Main Street in the 1200 block near the state Capitol. On a recent middle of the week night, it was brimming over with patrons -- an unlikely sight on the street just a couple of years ago.


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