Now that a 12-year-old plan to redevelop the north end of the former Navy base is dead, it will be up to North Charleston and the state’s railroad agency to determine the future of that important slice of real estate.
The land covers hundreds of acres, including much of North Charleston’s public waterfront and properties that could become home to new job-creating businesses.
“I think this could truly be the most significant decision the Lowcountry could make for the next 10 years,” said Alan St. Clair, developer of the Lowcountry Innovation Center, a building on the base where 17 high-tech firms now operate.
So what happens next? The former base is many things to many people, from public spaces and historic homes that once housed Navy officers, to centers for commerce and industry.
A large part of the answer will be determined by the state Commerce Department’s Palmetto Railways Division, which controls most of the land west of Noisette Boulevard.
“It can be something that spurs growth for the whole state of South Carolina,” St. Clair said. “Or it can become home to more dirty industry that nobody else wants.”
The Commerce Department is already fighting a legal challenge from St. Clair’s company and others who oppose a plan to rezone and develop one large, vacant industrial tract for use by Continental Tire.
Palmetto Railways has said there will be a public process to set out a master plan for the land it controls on the base, but planning for that process has not begun. The agency’s focus has been providing rail access to the port under construction at the south end of the base, and access to the rail is why the state bought up the north-end land.
“The existing businesses, structures, property designations and surrounding area are quite varied within a community with a long-history of rail service associated with the Port of Charleston,” said Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt. “Our expectation is that any new business investment and job creation will be appropriate for each particular site and the overall area.”
The city’s land
The other large swath of property at the north end of the base is now controlled by North Charleston, from Noisette Boulevard to the Cooper River, where the city’s Riverfront Park is located.
Much of that land was previously used for Navy housing — a mix of historic, stately homes built for officers, and nondescript brick ranch homes built in the 1960s.
West Ashley resident John Chalmers, 73, said he goes there daily to walk around the park.
“My dad did all the eye examinations at the shipyard from 1948 until he died,” Chalmers said. “I just love that area over there.
“What I think is that the park itself, and the area where the naval housing was, that ought to stay sacrosanct,” he said. “There’s a lot of history in that area.”
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said the city’s park will continue to be improved — the city is currently renovating a building on the park’s edge for use as event space — and North Charleston plans to make the surrounding area residential once again.
“Our goal is to preserve the historic buildings in the residential section,” Summey said.
Other houses might be torn down, he said, to make way for new ones. Summey estimated there could eventually be about 60 homes on the city’s section of the base near Riverfront Park.
“It’s nothing concrete, but this is our initial concept,” the mayor said.
Across the tracks
West of Noisette Boulevard and the railroad tracks there, which will eventually carry trains loaded with shipping containers, the state’s landholdings have a variety of uses. The buildings include industrial facilities that range from thriving to crumbling, offices, private homes and businesses, and a public charter school.
“We got a letter yesterday saying who to send our rent check to,” said Marty Hale, principal of Palmetto Scholars Academy, a school for gifted children.
Hale said the public school’s lease will carry through this school year, with an option to renew for the following year. Meanwhile, the school is planning to relocate to a new site near Joint Base Charleston.
Hale and Dean of Students Melissa McCants said they would like to see Palmetto Railways revisit the Noisette Co. concept for parts of the base, which envisioned a new urban community where people would live and work.
Noisette and the city laid out that plan, but the company hit financial trouble and the state eventually acquired all the Noisette Co. land.
“Park Circle is really cool, and would be even better if it extended down here,” said McCants, who recently moved to the neighborhood.
A tech concept
At the Lowcountry Innovation Center, a privately owned building full of high-tech firms that’s now surrounded by state-owned land, business owners said the state has a great opportunity to create a technology campus that would attract more high-paying jobs.
“I would like to see more firms like mine here, because competition brings customers,” said Ryan Lemire, executive director of operations and development at Geocent, which was ranked the best small or medium-size company to work at in South Carolina for each of the past two years.
“I would like to see a campus environment,” he said. “Really, they could start by fixing things up.”
“A corner Starbucks wouldn’t hurt,” Lemire added.
Jeff Miller, president of MillerWilson Consulting, also located in the center, said the area could become part of an official technology corridor, attracting more firms like his.
“The question is, what is their intent?” Miller said.
The now state-owned land includes decrepit vacant buildings, some of which are historic, and industrial sites. The former Navy base hospital, for example, is a large complex with broken windows and a damaged roof, next to Palmetto Scholars Academy.
McCants said they tell students the building is haunted, to keep them from exploring its empty corridors.
Elias Deeb believes the former Navy base land presents a tremendous opportunity.
“It’s the bull’s-eye of the Lowcountry,” said Deeb, who owns Cedrus Development and has an office in the Lowcountry Innovation Center. “I would start with the low-hanging fruit, which is the buildings.”
Whatever happens, it will be the second attempt to redevelop the north end of the base.
After the Navy base closed in 1996, North Charleston developed the plans with the Noisette Co. to turn that part of the former base into an environmentally friendly urban hub of homes and businesses, but that plan had trouble getting off the ground and during the housing downturn most of the property went into foreclosure.
That’s when the Commerce Department swooped in and bought most of the Noisette property, to further the state’s plan for a nearby intermodal railyard that would serve a new port at the south end of the base. The settlement of a rail-related lawsuit last year gave a portion of the land back to North Charleston, leaving the city and state in control of most property on the north end of the base.
On Oct. 8 Palmetto Railways bought the last 50 or so acres owned by Noisette, leaving most of the north base either owned by the city or state.
“Palmetto Railways has a public-oriented interest in the future of the former Navy base,” said Hitt, the Commerce secretary. “Within the framework of a rail and transportation system that will safely and efficiently move commerce to and from the Port, Palmetto Railways supports the development of an attractive and economically vibrant community that will provide new and sustainable tax revenues to the city of North Charleston while also benefiting the greater Charleston region and the state as a whole.”
St. Clair hopes that the state, in particular, will move quickly to develop a plan.
“With uncertainty you lose investment and you lose jobs,” he said. “They have to say what they are going to do, and stick with it.”
Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.