Downtown dormitories could give Main Street a boost

A developer has plans to make the long-vacant Palmetto Center into dormitories on Columbia's Main Street.

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WACH) - Columbia city council has approved a measure that could clear the way for downtown dormitory living along Main Street.

On Tuesday, council members gave the green light to an amendment to a zoning measure that would increase the amount of people allowed to live in private dormitories in the downtown area.

An out-of-state company has plans to house more than 800 college students in the old Palmetto Center in the downtown corridor. The 21-story building has been vacant since 2009 when SCANA moved to a new facility in Cayce.

The prospect of increased traffic is music to the ears of Jason Gordon. The downtown food vendor serves up Famous Nathan's hot dogs to the lunch crowd every day right across the street from the Palmetto Center.

"Main Street's growing, they keep adding new things," said Gordon. "I think it's going to be great . It's going to help the area develop businesses."

But, the project is still not a done deal. The current city ordinance that caps private dorms at 150 beds per-acre, does not take tall buildings into account. City council's move would address that issue and others related to traffic and pedestrian safety. The amendment still faces a second reading by council and must be granted a special exception from the city zoning appeals board.

Any possible changes would not be specific to this particular dorm project, but, any future projects.

In recent weeks, some on the Columbia planning commission questioned whether an influx of students to the Main Street corridor was "compatible" with the downtown atmosphere.

At a public hearing Tuesday night, just one Columbia resident addressed city council on the issue. No residents spoke against the project.

"Students bring a certain vitality and variety to urban life," said J. Lesesne Monteith, an architect who has an office along Main Street. "If you go to New York City or Philadelphia you find universities are a huge part of urban life."

According to city officials, residents aren't the only ones who feel that way.

"There was a great deal of support among a lot of the businesses as well," said Krista Hampton, Columbia's director of Planning and Development Services. "Having that many bodies who want goods and services is only a good thing for businesses on Main Street."

Jason Gordon just hopes that increased foot traffic is served up sooner as opposed to later.

"It will definitely be good for us," said Gordon. "They'll (students) be able to grab something quick on their way to their classes. So we're glad to be here and we're glad to help the community."

It's likely Columbia city council members will take up the issue again at a council meeting in early June.