Bold plans to redevelop hundreds of acres of polluted land along the Ashley River faded away this week, as all the properties involved went to auction in Charleston County's delinquent tax sale.
Companies controlled by Cherokee Investment Partners, a North Carolina private equity firm involved in brownfield redevelopment, owed about $300,000 in property taxes, county records show.
One of the company's plans, known as Magnolia, called for building a mini-city with offices and thousands of homes on more than 200 acres in Charleston's Neck Area.
Charleston officials were enthusiastic about the development, helped rezone the area and design the plan in 2007, and created a special tax-financing area that funded construction of a $10 million bridge connecting the site to Petty Street.
The bridge leads to vacant industrial land and has never opened.
The other Cherokee plan involved demolishing the former Baker Hospital building in North Charleston, and cleaning up the 57 acres of high ground for a redevelopment known as Ashley River Center.
The old hospital building was until last year home to the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. Demolition was completed this year and environmental cleanup was under way. Early plans called for offices, hotels, residences, retail space and recreational areas.
"Certainly we've always been hopeful that they would be able to fulfill their development," said Ray Anderson, senior assistant to North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey. "Like everything else, with the economy tanking, that didn't happen."
Calls to Cherokee were not returned Wednesday. "We haven't had any contact with them in a good while," Anderson said.
He said the city had arranged for several million dollars in federal grants and loans for the project, which never were tapped. Anderson said the good news is that the site is being cleaned up.
At both the Ashley River Center and Magnolia sites, old industrial structures were demolished and environmental cleanup plans put in place.
Like much of the land along the Ashley River in the Neck Area, the sites were polluted with the products of phosphate fertilizer production, wood-treatment mills, and other heavy industry.
The Magnolia development site below a section of the Ashley River is famous among environmental regulators for a 1992 incident in which shrimp contaminated with phosphorous spontaneously caught fire when removed from the water.
After cleaning up the land, the developers had planned to construct some of the tallest buildings in Charleston, with up to 4,400 residences, 900 hotel rooms, 2 million square feet of commercial space, civic spaces, parks and a marina.
There was talk of building a trolley line to downtown Charleston, and at one point, there was brief discussion about moving the path of Interstate 26 away from the Magnolia site.
"Our expectation is that other developers are attempting to purchase the note and take over the property," said the city of Charleston Corporation Counsel Charlton deSaussure Jr. "What has happened, with them not having paid their taxes, is not a total surprise."
Charleston's public works facility is located on one of the properties that went to auction for unpaid taxes. The city leases the site from the Magnolia developers for $1 a year, and deSaussure said he expects that arrangement will continue with whoever ends up owning the property until the city's new public works complex is built.
Delinquent tax sales allow the property owner a year to buy their property back, with fees and interest added, so Cherokee could reclaim the land as part of a sale to a third party.