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Downtown Leadership Council makes Flat Branch expansion recommendation

The Downtown Leadership Council has voted to recommend the COMO 200 committee’s preferred option plan for the Flat Branch Expansion Project. The project is set to be complete by Columbia’s bicentennial in 2021.

DLC chair Scott Wilson said the vote to recommend option one to City Council was almost unanimous. The plan, pictured below, features green space where there’s currently piles of cement and rock at the corner of Broadway Street and Providence Road.

The city of Columbia purchased that land in 2016 for just over $1 million.

The corner of Broadway Street and Providence Road is hallowed ground, with many calling it the birthplace of Columbia.

According to city leaders, the Smithton Land Company bought the land in 1818 near the current intersection of Garth and Broadway. It wanted to create the town of Smithton to be the county seat.

Just a few years later, that site was rejected because it had inadequate water supplies, so in 1821, the land was moved a mile and a half east, along Flat Branch Creek. It was later renamed Columbia.

A second option, suggested by the property owner Mark Stevenson, keeps the full lot for parking. As a trade, Stevenson has offered up some of his land for the park.

Stevenson couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.

The major sticking point between the three options was the use of the parking lot on that southeast corner. Option 1 will eliminate half of that parking lot. Wilson said the city already owns it so he doesn’t think it will be a problem.

“Really, we think there’s enough parking near the park for an urban park,” he said.

A January public input meeting on three options elicited dozens of comments from members of the community. When asked what they would change about the proposed improvements, most of the comments implored the city to keep the parking as is, or at least make sure there’s enough.

“I would change the parking lot proposal to at least save some of the parking at 302 S. Providence,” one resident wrote. “It once again shows this cities (sic) antibusiness sentiment. The owner’s alternative proposal that Mr. Stevenson is proposing at least gives options to consider everyone’s needs. It would save some parking and give option to create a smaller entrance.”

Wilson said the DLC doesn’t think having parking that close to the street would be safe in a walkable park. ABC 17 News asked if he thinks the parking lot is currently unsafe.

“Well, I think it is, even if you have a pedestrian park on the corner as opposed to what’s there now,” he said. “Safety was an issue and the DLC’s recommendation is to make it as pretty as possible.”

Wilson also said the DLC felt there was already enough parking in the area.

There were comments from residents after the January input meeting that praised the idea, which also includes an art installation at the corner called The Gateways Project.

Deb Sheals, who is the vice chair of the COMO 200 committee and the chair of the park working group, said they are making great progress and anticipates the master plan will go before City Council for a public hearing on May 6.

The entire project, besides the $1 million spent by the city initially for the land, will be privately funded.

“We are in a bit of a holding pattern until the council approves the master plan,” said Sheals. “COMO 200 has developed a preliminary budget and set general fundraising goals.”

The Downtown Community Improvement District also plans to contribute to the project.

Construction is expected to begin in the spring of 2020, and the park will be placed in service March 2021.

Here is a link to the Flat Branch Expansion page, which includes the Master Plan options and comments from the public.

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