Student housing or high-tech jobs? County's property swap plan stymied by city zoning change
Charleston city officials have thrown a wrench into the gears of Charleston County's plan for a property swap on Morrison Drive by abruptly rezoning the county-owned land to prevent a potential student housing complex.
The city wants the area to become a new hub for high-tech businesses. The county's 8-acre property is among the largest on that stretch of Morrison, and high-tech companies in the city have urged the county to abandoned the pending property deal.
County Council a month ago gave initial approval for a deal to trade the property to a developer in exchange for two undisclosed properties elsewhere and a new emergency medical services building.
"To me, the deal is as dead as Disco," County Council Vice Chairman Elliott Summey said Friday, the day after Charleston City Council voted to change the zoning rules that govern development. "If they don't want to see student housing over there, then we need to honor that."
The property is currently home to the county's disabilities board, a storage facility, and small claims and magistrate courts.
County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said the county could still consider the property swap and see if the developer wants to move forward.
"That's probably the quickest rezoning I've ever seen," said Pryor. "As far as I'm concerned, County Council may take this up on Tuesday, and if we decide to move forward, then it's between the developer and the city."
The developer hasn't been disclosed, but officials with the city and county said it's a North Carolina company with plans to build apartments for college students. The majority of County Council tentatively approved the deal in early January, but some council members objected to making a deal with a developer who approached the county about the property, without putting the land up for sale.
The county's property is just across Conroy Street from the planned location of the city's next high-tech incubator building, at 999 Morrison Drive.
The Charleston Digital Corridor Foundation Board - executives from PeopleMatter, CSS, Benefitfocus, BoomTown, Blue Acorn and Google - said in a letter that development of the county property "is a watershed moment regarding the development of Charleston's tech industry."
The board members in the letter urged the county to not sell the 995 Morrison Drive property "and instead work with the City of Charleston and the local tech community to build upon the vision for the adjacent parcel of land to develop a technology campus master plan much as has been done with the proposed Horizon Development on the western edge of the peninsula."
The city's rezoning measure created a new zoning category, Technology Corridor Overlay, which applies only to the properties at 995 and 999 Morrison Drive. In general, the rules say that development should be for technology-related industry, with any retail and residential development being incidental.
"We've been real clear about what we would like to see on the property," said Tim Keane, Director of Charleston's Department of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability. "We wanted to make sure that, no matter who the ultimate buyer is, the zoning is in place."
"Ideally, the city and county could work together on a master plan," he said.
City Councilman Aubry Alexander said high-tech companies have been creating jobs in the area that pay well more than average.
"These are the types of companies we have to have here," he said. "I just think this is so important to the city, and this is where these folks want to be."
Summey, the County Council vice chairman and son of North Charleston's mayor, said he thinks the county should respect the city's wishes.
"We don't want to run afoul of the city's vision for what they want to do," he said. "(Charleston Mayor Joe Riley's) vision has been the right vision for the city of Charleston 99 percent of the time, so who am I to argue?"
Pryor said it's not clear what the county might do with the property if the planned swap falls through.
"It's not like we were trying to move," he said. "We just saw this as an opportunity to gain some value."
Pryor said the county could just keep its facilities on the Morrison Drive property.
"The worst case scenario is, if we have a plan to upgrade that building we can continue to operate out of there," he said. "It could be 10 years or 20."
Reach David Slade at 937-5552