By Eva Moore
May 31st, 2017
Curiosity Coffee Bar owner Greg Slattery had to leave Columbia to realize how much he loved the Capital City. He moved to Athens, Georgia in 2009, spending three and a half years there before moving back.
“At the time, I thought I was escaping to what I thought would be a more musically hip scene with more arts and culture going on. But I found out I was dead wrong. Just not right at all. Not only do I feel like the music scene’s better here, but now I am a part of the renaissance in Columbia.”
The new center of that renaissance, for Slattery and others, is along a stretch of Main Street between Elmwood Avenue and River Drive, an area bounded by the Cottontown and Elmwood Park neighborhoods.
That’s where Slattery and his partner, Sandra Moscato, just opened a small coffee shop inside local wine shop Vino Garage.
“I was most excited about the idea of being a part of the development of this area,” Slattery says. “It’s just such a neat stretch. I love the industrial building sort of vibe. …Looking at this, it felt like I could be part of something I’d be really proud of.”
Curiosity Coffee Bar isn’t the only coffee shop to open here in the past month. One block away, Indah Coffee Co., a longtime Soda City Market vendor, opened its first brick-and-mortar spot in the former Dunn Electric Co. building on Sumter Street; it shares the airy, welcoming space with Circa Barber Shop.
The caffeine boom had led some to dub the area “Coffeetown.”
But it’s more than just coffee. Curiosity and Indah are among a slew of new businesses that have opened or are about to open in this area, including a brewery, an architecture firm, a trendy furniture store and a yet-to-be-announced project by an out-of-state restaurant group.
The boom is no accident; the City of Columbia and the surrounding neighborhoods have been laying the groundwork for years. But the new development is raising inevitable tensions — fears of gentrification, and even a quibble over what the area should be called.
With development over the last few decades focused on the Vista and downtown, it’s been a long time since Columbia had a real explosion of changes in one of its urban neighborhoods. But as the city fills in and further diversifies, people are paying close attention to how this area will grow.
Folami Geter owns Lamb’s Bread Vegan Café, which has been at the corner of Main and Franklin at least since 2005; she bought the business from her father several years back. During a recent lunch hour, Curtis Mayfield was on the stereo and Geter and her staff were spooning out collards, vegan mac-and-cheese and other specialties. The clientele at this black-owned business is a mix of black and white.
“Maybe six or seven years ago, there were only two or three thriving businesses on our stretch of Main Street,” Geter says in a later email interview. “We were surrounded by empty abandoned buildings.”
In some ways, they still are. One of those abandoned properties is Jim Moore Cadillac; the dealership closed in 2009. Vacant warehouses, garages and weedy parking lots dot both sides of the street. Christ Central Ministries, which serves the homeless and other disadvantaged people, owns properties both north and south of Elmwood on Main. Men sometimes gather outside a liquor store on the east side of the street.
But recently, Geter says, “The landscape has changed tremendously.”
“It’s interesting to see folks who would have never thought of coming this far [up] North Main, now flocking to area businesses,” she says. “It’s proof that our city is growing. It’s absolutely different now. We don’t mind the change.”
Over the last several years, other businesses began to open. In 2011, David Roberts opened DER Kitchen in a building he’d bought five years earlier on the corridor. Roberts rents commercial kitchen space to food trucks, caterers and other food purveyors. Chocolate Nirvana is probably his most prominent kitchen user — and in the next few months, Roberts will be converting the front of his building into a retail space for the dessert maker.
In late 2012, Doug Aylard opened Vino Garage, bringing his beer and wine expertise to a low-key little wine shop on the west side of Main Street.
The most recent explosion began in earnest, though, with the opening of restaurant The War Mouth. Its owners chose Cottontown after an exhaustive search.
“Rhett and I creeped every street in the Metro, basically,” says Porter Barron, who co-owns The War Mouth with Chef Rhett Elliott and developer Frank Cason. “We knew we wanted to be as close to the city center as possible, but we didn’t want somewhere so concentrated that we couldn’t have a barbecue pit. This was a commercial district that wasn’t too crowded and was close.”
“We also wanted to be close to the river so we could go catfishing late at night when we get off work,” he adds.
The area makes a lot of sense for a restaurant, says Barron.
“We were surprised nobody beat us here, because it’s been obvious that the neighborhoods surrounding this commercial district have long since surpassed the offerings of the commercial corridor,” Barron says. “The residents in these areas have invested lots into these homes over the past several decades; it’s only the commercial district that was still blighted. It was clear this was an underserved area.”
The War Mouth opened to great reviews in December 2015, serving food inspired by hunting and fishing and Midlands barbecue joints.
Since then, developer Cason has bought several more properties in the area, including the building that now houses Indah and Circa, and one that will soon house Columbia Presbyterian Church. It’s won him over, he says.
“I’m from Columbia and lived here all my life and honestly didn’t know much about it,” Cason says. “My impression was ‘Don’t go north of Elmwood.’”
He found, though, that the Elmwood Park, Earlewood and Cottontown neighborhoods are filled with people with disposable income.
“There’s probably no area in Columbia that has that big of a gap between perception and reality,” Cason says. “Many people perceive that area as blighted not just commercially but residentially. The commercial needs help, but the residential is very nice. Lot of millennials, empty nesters.”
There are other newcomers. Architecture firm Studio 2LR recently renovated the old Wilson Furniture building at Main and Confederate, and moved in. A new furniture store, Copper Barn, is in the midst of its grand opening. Cromer’s P-Nuts plans to move to a building along the corridor that it bought in February. Restaurateur Kristian Niemi announced a project called Revival, though it’s not rolling yet. The area just above River is even getting a Pelican’s SnoBalls, the bright pink-and-blue New Orleans frozen treat franchise.
The area’s first brewery, Cotton Town Brew Lab, hopes to have its beer production up and running by the end of the summer. Owner Zack Jones says he started off looking at buildings in Charleston — “the mecca of breweries,” he says — but decided to stick around Columbia instead. The warehouses and garages that dot Cottontown are ideal for light industry like a brewery — at the future Cotton Town Brew Lab, the 16-foot ceiling means plenty of space for big tanks. Once production is up and running, Jones plans to turn his attention to building a tasting room and, eventually, a canning line.
And, as Free Times reported last week, it’s not just homegrown businesses eyeing the area anymore. A Tennessee-based development group called Fresh Capital has bought a property at 2203 Main St., which currently houses A&F Body Shop and a few other ramshackle buildings. Fresh Capital paid $463,000.
The group is associated with such chains as Taziki’s, Jim ‘N Nick’s Community Bar-B-Q, Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint and I Love Juice Bar — but real estate agent JP Scurry of Colliers International says the buyer hasn’t yet decided what restaurant to develop on the site.
“Obviously they liked the property; there are some neat buildings on it,” Scurry says. “But they have not confirmed or finalized what they see there. They’re a very flexible group. Creative. Lot of different concepts.”
None of this development, it turns out, was an accident.
All About the Neighborhoods
For years, city planners and neighborhood groups have been trying to figure out how to lift up North Columbia.
You’ll hear quibbles from some — including some in this story — but to many Columbians, everything north of Elmwood Avenue is North Columbia. It’s a majority-black district with many proud, historic neighborhoods, and institutions like Columbia College and the Lutheran Seminary. It’s also struggled with poverty, and particularly with attracting businesses like grocery stores and restaurants.
Zero in on the area just north of Elmwood, though, and you’ll find something different. According to data compiled in 2014 using U.S. Census figures, the two-square-mile Earlewood/Cottontown/Elmwood Park area is more than half owner-occupied homes, with a median household income that mirrors that of the city at large. It’s about 60 percent white, 36 percent black — slightly whiter than the whole city, and certainly whiter than North Columbia.
A lot of stones have been laid over the years to help North Columbia, including the Elmwood-to-River-Drive stretch of Main. A detailed City of Columbia master plan released in 2005 visualizes the North Main corridor as a series of “villages,” with an “artist village” centered around Main Street and River Drive. City development corporations have built and redeveloped buildings throughout North Columbia, and given businesses reduced rents or loans to open in the area.
City leaders have also specifically targeted the area that’s now developing. Federal grants helped the city streetscape Main from Elmwood to River Drive, burying the utilities underground and smoothing the road and sidewalks. The city developed a façade loan program to give businesses along the corridor money to improve their storefronts. The city also did a zoning overlay for the area, reducing the number of parking spaces required for new businesses to move in, hoping to reduce the barriers to entry.
Another probable factor in the recent redevelopment? Bull Street. Greenville developer Bob Hughes is redeveloping the former state mental hospital property; it has a city-funded baseball stadium and a lot of new infrastructure going in. And it’s not far from Cottontown.
But the neighborhoods just north of Elmwood felt they had to do more. It turns out that the education Frank Cason got about the Cottontown area was probably no accident.
“Our neighborhood had always been on the defensive,” says Paul Bouknight, president of the Cottontown/Bellevue Historic District Neighborhood Association. “A few years ago we decided to go on the offensive.”
The Earlewood, Elmwood Park and Cottontown neighborhoods compiled some information for developers and started getting the word out.
The community also started a branding effort, according to various community members, trying to educate people about the fact that “North Main Street” doesn’t start until just above River Drive. The area immediately north of Elmwood is still plain old Main Street, and it’s in the same zip code — 29201 — as downtown Columbia.
“People refer to it as North Main, but it’s Main Street,” Bouknight says of the rapidly developing corridor. “Similar to what they did in Charleston with ‘Upper King,’ we did ‘Upper Main.’ All of that has seemed to help.”
There’ve been other efforts to separate out the “Upper Main” area. David Roberts, who owns DER Kitchen and has lived in Elmwood Park since building a house there in 1997, jokes that he briefly tried to rebrand the area SNOE, for Slightly North of Elmwood.
“We’re struggling for an identity,” Roberts says. “Everyone knows Main Street, the Vista, Olympia. What do we call our little section of Main?”
“It’s nothing against being associated with North Columbia,” he adds. His business is a member of the North Columbia Business Association. But he thinks his area needs its own name and identity.
Roberts says he’s seen some recent changes in the neighborhoods themselves, not just the corridor. “Elmwood Park and Cottontown are very diversified,” he says. “That’s one reason we like it. We couldn’t have bought our lot in Shandon.” But he notes that until recently, he and his wife were some of the few people in the neighborhood with kids — and who sent their kids to the neighborhood schools.
“When we moved in, you were either gay, single, double-income-no-kids, or retired,” he says. Now, people with kids are staying.
Not everyone thinks the booming area needs its own brand.
“I’ve never seen a reason to not just call it North Main,” says Slattery of Curiosity Coffee Bar. “I feel like the only reason you don’t want to call it North Main is whatever association you might have with that name. To me it is what it is. I’ve always loved this area. It’s affordable, it’s fun. Honestly, the only vandalism or crime that’s ever happened to my property while living in this area was from a drunk white college dude who went through everyone’s car on our street and threw our change out in the street.”
The G Word
While metrics are hard to come by this early in the boom, developers tell Free Times there’s already been a spike in the cost of some commercial properties in the area, with owners feeling their lots are worth a lot more than they used to be. And there are very few residential properties for sale in the Cottontown area these days, Bouknight notes.
What’s more, it’s indisputable that many of the new businesses in the area are white-owned, while many of the older businesses in the area are black-owned.
With the Elmwood-to-River corridor so hot, is there a concern that the attention might harm what people love about the area, or push out people who are already there?
Sam Davis, the area’s long-serving councilman, is used to getting pulled a lot of different ways, as he represents basically all of North Columbia.
“I think gentrification, as everyone knows, has positives and negatives,” Davis says.
Davis says development will be good for the entire North Columbia area — “businesses follow rooftops,” he notes — but that he wants to make sure the new businesses don’t push out or make life harder for existing businesses or residents. He cites the façade program as an example of how the city has tried to help existing businesses prepare for the changes coming to the area. The city needs to stay focused on projects like that, he says.
“Affordability along the North Main corridor is an attraction,” Davis says. “We did a good experiment in the Vista, now we need to focus our energies in the northern part of the city and eastern part of the city.”
The area’s newer business owners say they’ve tried to tread lightly.
“That’s a tricky thing,” says Barron, co-owner of The War Mouth, when asked whether the new development is a force for good. “In this case, we certainly aren’t gentrifying this area. It’s only the commercial corridor that has not kept pace. The neighborhood associations around here have been clamoring for commercial business; they were just opposed to El Cheapos and liquor stores, places that would result in a lot of calls to the precinct. When we came and introduced ourselves to the neighborhood associations first thing, we were deferential coming in, and I’m proud to say we have a very good reputation.”
On the other hand, while commercial development is positive, being a hip new area could bring undesirable focus, according to Slattery.
“I do worry about gentrification,” Slattery says. “I’ve lived in these neighborhoods since ’06. My biggest concern, and what I hope doesn’t happen is that the culture and the heritage of this part of town gets lost in brand new banners saying, ‘Whoo, we’re It.’”
Cason, the developer, also sees the boom just north of Elmwood as a potential way to boost the entire North Columbia region.
“They desperately want more services out there, more retail,” he says of Eau Claire and areas further up Main. “I believe this will help them. [But] between Elmwood and Sunset, I think that has to happen first. … We need some infill development. Once people start to see that, retailers will start to take notice.”
Bouknight, the Cottontown neighborhood president, is excited about the changes in the area — but he’s very clear about his priorities.
“Our great concern is not to hurt the quality of life in our neighborhoods,” he says. “Life is good in Cottontown, Elmwood Park and Earlewood. It’s quiet, family-centric neighborhoods. We’re a bunch of porch dwellers. … We don’t want what happened in Five Points where it has metastasized into the neighborhoods, parking and so forth. We want the business, but we want it contained and we want to maintain the privacy of our neighborhoods.”
Cotton Town Brew Lab hopes to begin production this year. (picture by John A. Carlos II)
Greg Slattery co-owns Curiosity Coffee Bar, a new business inside Vino Garage. (picture by John A. Carlos II)
Lamb’s Bread Vegan Café has been serving up big portions for more than a decade at the corner of Main and Franklin streets. (picture by John A. Carlos II)
Circa Barber Shop
Curiosity Coffee Bar
(inside Vino Garage)
The War Mouth
Chocolate Nirvana retail storefront (inside DER Kitchen)
Columbia Presbyterian Church
Cotton Town Brew Lab
TBA restaurant project by Fresh Capital