Bridge-area makeover in slow lane: College plans community outreach center
When a strong rain floods the streets near the Cooper River Court public housing project where Samantha Smalls lives, the water remains for days.
The nearby land where the old Cooper River bridges once touched down is still empty, despite the city's ambitious plan to bring back to life the area between Morrison Drive and Cooper, Lee and Meeting streets. Construction was to begin on new stores, offices and 350 homes in 2007, then in 2009.
Smalls, who grew up on Charleston's East Side, said she's not surprised that 2011 is coming to a close and little has happened. "In this neighborhood, promises get broken," she said.
One bright spot on the horizon for the area is a new community center on the southwest corner of America and Lee streets, construction on which will begin in about a year. South Carolina State University will build the center with federal money designated for such community outreach efforts.
The center will offer GED classes, health information, nutrition education and other services the community needs, said Delbert Foster, the university's extension administrator for outreach programs.
One afternoon last week, Smalls sat on a plastic chair outside her home, less than a block from the proposed community center.
She hadn't heard that a community center was in the works, but she liked the idea of having more services in the neighborhood. "Most people around here don't have transportation," she said.
She hopes the center offers programs for children, who she thinks get in trouble if they don't have enough recreational activities. And she thinks offering GED classes will serve many of her neighbors.
Smalls graduated from high school, and thinks education is important. "If kids see their parents learning, they'll be more likely to finish school," she said.
Progress has been made in the area, said Tim Keane, director of planning, preservation and sustainability for the city of Charleston. The old bridges had isolated the neighborhood from the rest of the city, but new roads have been built that "re-knitted" it back into the fabric of Charleston. Other roads have been repaired and some work has been completed on drainage problems. "Before that, it was just a wasteland," he said.
But Keane acknowledged the revitalization plan wasn't moving forward very quickly. The sour economy stalled it, he said.
The S.C. State community center is a great civic project, he said. And the location is visible and accessible.
But other plans for the area depend on the market. "We're in a market that's slow and we expect it to remain slow for some time," he said.
The city likely will have to rethink how it approaches the revitalization project, he said. It will have to be done more slowly, and tackled in smaller increments.
"Maybe we proceed parcel-by-parcel instead of block-by-block," Keane said.
The six-acre area is in the hands of the state Department of Transportation, but it will be turned over to the city by early November, he said. The city had expected the land transfer to happen years ago, but "it hasn't been the highest on the priority list" since the economy and the redevelopment plan stalled, he said.
S.C. State's project is the only one ready to move forward, he said.
Foster, who's from Charleston, said it's part of S.C. State's mission as a land-grant university to reach out into communities. The community center project is consistent with that mission, he said.
S.C. State attorney Ed Givens said the city will transfer land for the community center to the university after it officially receives it from the transportation department. Then, the university has to go through a state process to accept the land. Construction likely will begin in about a year.
State Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, and former state Sen. Ernie Passailaigue originally proposed that some of the land be turned over S.C. State.
"The center has the potential to be of tremendous value to the people of Charleston," said Maurice Washington, a member of S.C. State's board of trustees. Washington was the board's chairman when the plan for the community center was launched.
This project will be different from the transportation center on the Orangeburg campus, a project the state's Legislative Audit Council recently found was plagued by mismanagement. The university has the money on hand to build the center, Washington said. School leaders began building the transportation center before they had secured the funds necessary to complete it.
And the people in charge of building and running the community center have the skills to do their jobs, he said. Foster's department "has a reputation of bringing in projects on time and on budget," he said.
The center will have a handsome design, be built at a reasonable cost and provide programs of value, Washington said.
Smalls said she hopes the center actually gets built, unlike other projects planned for the area. A lot of people on the east side are disillusioned by the lack of progress in their community, she said. "You tend to give up when people aren't listening," she said. "I don't want to see in two years that there's nothing there."
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491.