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Columbia Worries Business-Friendly Policies Could Harm Neighborhoods

Residents of South Carolina’s capital city are concerned about the unintended consequences and environmental impacts of removing barriers for developers and entrepreneurs in an effort to make the city more “business friendly.”

(TNS) — A handful of city leaders have made it their mission to make Columbia, S.C., more “business-friendly” by eliminating barriers for developers and entrepreneurs.

But as the city tries to clear obstacles for new business, some residents and community leaders say unintended consequences are sure to follow.

Among the proposed changes are the elimination of off-street parking requirements for buildings 7,500 square feet or less, and the elimination of landscaping requirements for redeveloped properties if meeting those requirements reduces existing parking.

Neighborhood residents worry less parking will turn their quiet residential streets into de-facto parking lots. Conservationists worry fewer landscaping requirements will increase urban flooding and worsen heat islands.

The deeper question on the minds of many is how to move a city forward while still protecting its existing assets.


For Sabrina Odom-Edwards, director of the North Columbia Business Association, eliminating the off-street parking requirements for small business is a question of equity.

Businesses in Five Points, the Main Street district and parts of Devine Street are already exempt from the city’s requirement to provide off-street parking to patrons.

Odom-Edwards supports ideas that make it easier to grow businesses in North Columbia and on North Main Street, where development is finally starting to take off.

“It’s essential that we create a friendly mom-and-pop small business atmosphere,” she said.

She added the focus needs to remain on small businesses. The city’s proposal currently exempts any new and existing business of 7,500 square feet or less from the requirement to provide off-street parking.

Odom-Edwards said another aspect of the parking conversation is walkability and whether Columbia will ever transcend its car-centric culture.

“This is a good initiative for transportation in the city,” she said, saying it may eventually lead more people to use public transportation.

In many vibrant cities, people understand they will probably struggle to find a parking spot. Instead of residents driving their own vehicles downtown, they carpool or take the bus, Odom-Edwards said.

Changing Columbia’s culture to be more pedestrian-focused will come with its own set of growing pains, she added.

Matt Kennell, CEO of the Main Street District’s City Center Partnership, said the lack of off-street parking requirements has been a boon to Main Street.

“It’s really worked quite well,” he said. “I think it encourages density and smart development.”

It’s still possible to find parking near Main Street, he said, adding that the parking garages in the area almost always have room.

He knows people are concerned about the proposal to extend the exemption to other areas of the city. “But in reality, parking will often still have to be provided, it just won’t be required” by the city, Kennell said.

Those worried about the loss of parking options in the city say they aren’t against updating parking requirements for businesses, but neighborhoods need to be involved in the conversation.

Columbia’s coalition of downtown neighborhoods is frustrated with how quickly city leaders are trying to get the changes passed.

In June, Mayor Daniel Rickenmann and some council members, including Joe Taylor, held a press conference alongside city business leaders announcing a slate of ideas to make life easier and less expensive for business owners.

Besides the changes to parking and landscaping rules, the proposals included eliminating water and sewer change-of-use fees for certain properties and the creation of a reimbursement program for grease collection costs.

But residents say there has not been time to collect data or study potential unintended consequences of the changes.

“This is not going to be phased-in, it’s just going to happen one day,” said Elizabeth Marks, vice president of the downtown neighborhoods coalition.

Residents adjacent to downtown and other commercial corridors are concerned that reducing parking requirements will mean more people will park on their residential streets and that noise and garbage will follow.

While the heart of Main Street has an abundance of parking garages, Marks said other neighborhoods aren’t so lucky.

Neighborhoods adjacent to downtown are already seeing higher traffic as more apartments come online in the city center. Marks previously told The State that growth is ultimately positive for Columbia, so long as longtime residents are also considered.

She worries that these changes are just the beginning, and that eventually certain city leaders will attempt to eliminate all guardrails for development city-wide.

Taylor, who chairs Columbia’s economic and community development committee, said all of the proposed changes are about growing Columbia, and aren’t intended to impact neighborhoods.

“We’re a city of parking lots,” Taylor said, adding he feels for residents but “the best thing we can do for those folks is have a vibrant downtown.”

Unintended Consequences

Among the proposed “business-friendly initiatives” is the elimination of landscaping requirements for businesses that are renovating buildings if those landscaping requirements would mean the loss of even a single existing parking space.

Business leaders including Odom-Edwards and Kennell have heard horror stories from business owners who have spent thousands to comply with landscaping regulations. They agree there should be some give and take between neighborhood interests and what is good for entrepreneurs.

Both agree eliminating the requirements altogether would lead to a hotter, less attractive city.

Others opposed to the change as-written include the Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler. His concern is that reducing trees and other vegetation could worsen urban flooding and increase heat islands in Columbia.

Columbia is already struggling with managing storm water runoff, urban heat and a dwindling tree canopy, said Stangler. When a property gets redeveloped, there’s an opportunity to improve it — by adding vegetation and meeting “thoughtful” development guidelines meant to address issues like heat islands and flash floods.

Stangler referenced the multiple flash floods Columbia has faced just this year.

Even a small change can have major unintended consequences, Stangler said, adding that if the change leads to worse flooding, it will also mean worse water quality in the Congaree, Saluda and Broad rivers.

Taylor dismissed the concerns.

“I don’t think the amount of what we’re talking about here is relative to any issue that exists,” he said. “If you want buildings renovated, if you want property improved, you make it easier for people to do it, not more difficult and not more expensive.”

He said the changes also don’t prevent business owners from adding their own landscaping, but it eliminates strict requirements set by the city.

Taylor said the proposed changes are vital to make it easier for businesses and developers to bring new projects to Columbia. Eventually, he would like to see even more red tape eliminated, including design guidelines enforced by the city’s Design/Development Review Committee, or the DDRC.

“I would like to see the design guidelines removed from our commercial areas and let the zoning do its job,” Taylor said.

No formal efforts have yet been launched to eliminate those guidelines.

Columbia City Council will consider the landscaping changes during a regular meeting Tuesday. The parking changes are expected to be heard by the council in September.

Neighborhood groups are hoping the city council will defer both items to allow for further discussion and research.

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