There are big ideas being bandied about in Columbia. The Urban Land Institute has proposed a series of small and large initiatives for the borough that include an anchor hotel, a pocket park, the designation of a town square, bike racks and “dramatic changes to pedestrian and vehicle traffic to direct tourists to shops and hikers to the Susquehanna River and its network of scenic trails,” LNP’s Junior Gonzalez reported for Thursday’s edition. The ideas are generating positive feedback from residents, business owners and elected officials, some of whom have their own thoughts to add to the mix.
Columbia is a wonderful part of Lancaster County, nestled on the shore of the Susquehanna, just south of the river’s big westward curve.
Describing Columbia for LNP’s “Our Town” series in April 2018, Chad Umble wrote of John Wright’s historic ferry, which helped the settlement establish itself as a transportation center in the late 1720s. “Fueled by railroad workers and industries that wanted to be close to the transportation hub, Columbia boomed during the 19th and early 20th centuries,” Umble wrote. “Factories in town produced silk, textiles, stoves and machinery while iron furnaces between Columbia and Marietta churned out so much pig iron the area was dubbed ‘Little Pittsburgh.’ ”
Today, the waterfront borough has, as Gonzalez writes, “a bustling antiques scene, its own brewpub and historic markethouse.”
And it has struggles, too.
Gonzalez notes the “vacant storefronts and run-down buildings” in the downtown business district. Poverty is a problem throughout the borough, and the school district is “strapped for cash because of an unstable tax base.”
A new vision is clearly needed.
“We’re reinventing ourselves,” Columbia Mayor Leo Lutz told LNP last year. “We’re basically taking a step back and saying, ‘What was in our past that we can capitalize on and make part of our future?’ ”
Enter the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit research and education organization that describes itself as “the oldest and largest network of cross-disciplinary real estate and land use experts in the world.” The borough hired the institute for a report, which cost $10,000.
It included the proposals that Gonzalez described in last week’s story — and that have Columbia buzzing.
Here’s a closer look at what Columbia’s future might be if the Urban Land Institute’s proposals can be turned into reality:
— A new downtown synergy would be created by adding an anchor hotel, restaurants and bars, grocery stores, clothing and shoe stores, laundromats and fitness facilities, all of this invigorated by facilitating a better traffic flow into the downtown and recreational areas. Having the already vibrant antiques district as part of this scene gives an extra boost.
And not all of this has to involve great expense. One element, Gonzalez notes, would be “a wayfinding system (that) would direct riverfront visitors back downtown via Locust Street — to the main business district — instead of its current feeder road at Walnut Street.”
— To facilitate some of this, the Urban Land Institute calls “for the Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority to ‘acquire, consolidate and market’ several vacant properties in the borough’s central business district.” Having a new hotel on the 300 block of Locust Street near the former Hotel Columbia and Hotel Locust is essential to the overall plan.
— And then there’s parking, a crucial aspect of encouraging visitors, and their wallets, to visit Columbia. A larger $6 million garage has been deemed too expensive at this time, but “panelists proposed paving a new 70-space pay parking at 25 N. Third Street,” Gonzalez wrote. The Urban Land Institute also recommends the creation of “a dedicated, revolving parking fund to secure maintenance and expansion improvements outside of other budgetary matters,” which we think is a smart idea. Mayor Lutz understands, too, that parking is an ongoing challenge, one that must be solved to lure developers. A parking study is now moving forward, which is good news.
Borough Council President Kelly Murphy said the Urban Land Institute report was a morale boost for Columbia. “It was nice to hear that you’re headed in the right direction,” he said.
To keep headed in that direction will be hard work. The good news is that Columbia is getting some help. It has received a state grant of $1.75 million toward renovations for the Columbia Market House and some parking improvements.
We wish Columbia the best in its quest to turn things around. Lancaster County is better when it is thriving.
We hope borough residents make their voices heard about what they like and dislike about these proposals. We hope they add suggestions of their own to the mix, and we hope that the borough council listens to those ideas as it charts a course for Columbia’s next chapter.
Finally, we urge those who don’t live in the borough to check out the great things it already has to offer.