It's been bobbing up and down, off in the distance, for most of the past decade. Now, the kickoff to the Horizon Project appears to be nearing the shoreline on Charleston's West Side.
The mixed-use development advanced last week with the announcement that the first structure, a combination apartment complex and parking garage to be built behind the Lockwood Drive police station, could start rising from the former municipal dump this fall.
"It's an opportunity to take trash and turn it into treasure," said Michael Maher, CEO of the nonprofit Horizon Project Foundation, which was created by the city and the Medical University of South Carolina to oversee the public-private venture.
The long-term plan calls for a $1 billion medical research hub on one of the largest contiguous tracts of real estate left on the peninsula - 22 acres near the Ashley River between Lockwood Drive and Hagood Avenue, from Spring to Fishburne streets. It could include about 2 million square feet of apartments, condominiums, laboratories, offices, restaurants and retail shops on land that's now used mostly as surface parking. One amenity will be a 30-foot-wide pedestrian "urban promenade" along a new vehicular spine.
Maher described Horizon as a natural extension of the city's increasingly cramped medical district. The idea, he said, is to give MUSC some room to breathe while creating a new urban destination for biotech-nology firms and other "high-cali-ber" knowledge-based businesses that need or want to be near a medical research university.
"A place to live, learn and earn, if you will," he said.
Maher, who began working for the city in 2001, knows the ebb and flow of Horizon as well as anyone. An architect, he was running Charleston's Civic Design Center when the stark West Side property was identified about a decade ago as a ripe redevelopment spot. It was a blank slate with a simple mandate: "Do something there," Maher recalled.
The city created a special tax district for the now-Horizon site as a way to raise money to pay for the heavily reinforced roads, sidewalks and other public utilities that will have to be built at the reclaimed marshland.
In the interim, the economy tanked. Yet work plodded on behind the scenes.
As the primary landowners, the city and MUSC created the Horizon Project Foundation. They rezoned their parcels to accommodate flexible and dense residential and commercial uses needed to make the numbers work. They got with the state to streamline the environmental cleanup process.
Horizon was moved off the back burner around mid-2012, as the economy began to stabilize. The deal gained more traction a year ago when Atlanta-based Gateway Development was picked as the nonprofit's private-sector partner. Then the Horizon Foundation board caught wind that Maher was being courted for a job in Florida. A counteroffer followed and he took the local CEO job in June.
Less than a year later, the first groundbreaking could be in the cards.
Maher quipped that he'd be happy to take credit for breaking the inertia, but he noted that other factors have come into play.
They include the immense amount of research money that's flowing into MUSC, a sum that totaled about $250 million last year.
"That's a component of it," Maher said.
Another is the pent-up demand for real estate - both commercial and residential - on the Charleston peninsula.
Also, the region as a whole is seeking to attract more higher-paying jobs by recruiting medical research firms.
"This is one of the 'opportunity places' for that to happen," Maher said of Horizon.
A recent example is Canadian biopharmaceutical company Aeterna Zentaris, which said this month it will create 60 jobs by establishing its new North American business and global commercial hub near Charleston International Airport. One factor, said CEO David Dodd, was "the emergence of Charleston as a collaborative center for research and development in the biopharmaceutical industry."
Naturally, money also plays into the Horizon equation. In an about-face from just a few years ago, lenders and investors alike are willing to take a hard look at compelling, long-term real estate deals, said Mack Reese, co-founder of Gateway Development. "That window is open . so we're moving ahead," he said.
Reese noted that Charleston isn't plowing fresh ground with Horizon, the project's challenging topography aside.
"This is not new or novel," he said.
He should know. His firm earned its role in the Charleston project based in part on its work on a similar reseach hub it developed at Georgia Tech, Reese's alma mater. He said another example that Gateway wasn't involved in is in Boston, at a Harvard-MIT venture.
"We feel convinced it can be done here," he said.