An $18 million revamp is set for Finlay Park, the civic heart of Columbia, South Carolina

Moving Forward

An $18 million revamp is set for Finlay Park, the civic heart of Columbia, South Carolina

View of a refreshed and renovated Finlay Park in Columbia, South Carolina, including a new pond-side playground. (© Civitas)

A long-awaited (and pandemic-delayed) plan to revitalize Finlay Park, the largest and most frequented urban green space in downtown Columbia, South Carolina, has reached a major milestone with news that the $18 million redesign scheme has won approval from city council members and can formally move forward ahead.

The overhaul, which is set to break ground by early next year and wrap up in 2024, is led by international planning and engineering firm Stantec, which maintains an office in Columbia, with Denver-based landscape architecture and urban design practice Civitas serving as a project subconsultant. This past December, the Columbia City Council approved a $1.5 million contract for the pre-construction and design phase for the project at the beloved-but-seen-better-days 18.5-acre park near the city’s historic Arsenal Hill neighborhood.

Although the Robert Marvin-designed Finlay Park in its current form was developed in the 1970s, a public park has existed at the site since 1859 although it fell into decline following the Civil War and was seldom used for recreation. In 1994, less than five years after a major renovation was completed, the park, originally named Sidney Park in honor of Columbia city councilman Algernon “Sidney” Johnson, was bestowed with its current name, one that pays tribute to Kirkman Finlay Jr., who served as mayor of South Carolina’s capital city from 1978 through 1986.

The master plan for the new-and-improved Finlay Park was first unveiled in 2019.

a spiraling fountain
The iconic fountain at Finlay Park imagined in working order. (© Civitas)

Name changes aside, Finlay Park has long served as the civic heart of Columbia’s urban core and is best known as playing host to numerous large-scale gatherings and events that draw people downtown, including a popular summer concert series. In recent years, however, the park has been beset with myriad troubles including accessibility obstacles, structural failure in park walls, overgrown root structures, and building code compliance issues. As a result, its popularity has waned. The park’s hard-to-miss centerpiece, a 27-foot-tall spiraling fountain, has also been largely sitting broken and dry for the past several years despite being emblematic of the city.

Finlay Park is also known as the epicenter of Richland County’s homelessness crisis and the city has long grappled with how to humanely right the situation. (A recent op-ed published in The State points out that a greater investment in mental health services, affordable housing, and employment training is an obvious solution to aiding the unhoused who have taken refuge in the park while drawing families back to it.)

As noted in a news release from Civitas, the new design will “improve circulation, engage users through diverse, interconnected spaces and increase accessibility, safety, and visibility.” Major elements of the proposed makeover include a renovation of the iconic cascading fountain, a new events stage, new restroom facilities, a refreshed children’s play area, updated walking paths, and a “recreated pond.” (In its early days, the park was also the site of Columbia’s waterworks.)

aerial rendering of a large urban park
Finlay Park encompasses over 18 acres in the heart of Columbia. Updated renderings showing how the park will look post-revamp are forthcoming. (© Civitas)

“It’s sustainable and responsible to build on the investment that’s already within Finlay Park,” said Mark Johnson, founder and president of Civitas and board member of the Brooklyn-based nonprofit Van Alen Institute. “We plan to enrich it and bring it up to contemporary programs in alignment with a 2019 Master Plan developed by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.”

“The new design of Finlay Park respects the original goals and objectives of revered southern landscape architect Robert Marvin while improving accessibility to all amenities and addressing safety concerns that currently exist in the park,” added Heath Mizer, landscape architect and urban designer at Civitas. “The new Finlay Park will provide better links to each destination, creating a park-in-motion for the community. These design moves will result in a renewed daily interest for outdoor leisure, exercise, and connecting with this charming southern landscape.”

As of late last year, the city is now seeking out funding opportunities for the remaining $16.5 million of the estimated $18 million project.