Historic Preservation, Citizen Participation, and Good Local Government in West Columbia

I recently ran across this news story, and I want to pass it on. At issue is a possible large development on a vacant four-acre site along the Congaree River in West Columbia, the large suburb directly adjacent to South Carolina's capital city. The parcel is probably just about the last large unbuilt tract in West Columbia's downtown area, and it borders both the great new Three Rivers Greenway that connects the two cities and allows access to natural beauty in the heart of the metropolitan area, as well as the New Brookland Historic District, the commercial and residential heart of West Columbia, which emerged at the turn of the twentieth century as a textile mill village. New Brookland has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978 and has been very lovingly preserved by private owners and good city government policy. The area is dense, highly walk- and bikeable, filled with mature trees, relatively racially integrated, and home to some vibrant small businesses. In short, it represents some of the best outcomes in local community planning and stewardship that we have in South Carolina. 


The proposed new development can be carried out in ways that enhance and complement the existing natural and human resources in the neighborhood. Like so:



Or, as with an earlier faceless apartment tower nearby, it can irreprably mar what has been achieved so far. Like so:



From what I gather, the developer's specific intentions haven't been made clear enough, and West Columbia's city council, to its great credit, has put a hold on the project until it sees more from the company. Kudos as well to the West Columbia residents and others who showed up to voice their concerns to council. (It was really a pleasure to see my Baha'i friend Carey Murphy, a long-time resident of the neighborhood, speaking so strongly and clearly in the accompanying video!) And thanks to my friend and colleague Michael Bedenbaugh, executive director of the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, for his tireless efforts around the state to work with communties, local governments, and businesspeople to instill a strong ethos of collaboration and collective ownership of our future.


I certainly hope this development goes through--but only as a mixed-use, mixed-income, human-scaled extension of the existing neighborhood, with harmonious architecture, a "complete street" approach and a grid that connects instead of divides, and plenty of natural beauty and free access to the river. And I hope that neighborhood residents and buisiness owners, local government, the historic preservation community, and the develolper keep working together to make this a good example of responsible building for the widest possible prosperity.


Private business, neighborhood quality of life, historic preservation, and environmental stewardship don't have to be competing concerns, especially when a well-informed citizenry is actively engaged in local decision-making and public officials are free of narrow ideological interests. Let's get together, really talk to each other, and make this work--in West Columbia and all over South Carolina.

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