Build our horizon Developer sought for massive $1 billion ‘mixed use’ project

MUSC President Ray Greenberg (left) and Charleston Mayor Joe Riley stand on the top floor of the Marriott Hotel on Lockwood Boulevard, overlooking the site of the Horizon District.

BY RENEE DUDLEY

and BRENDAN KEARNEY

rdudley@postandcourier.com bkearney@postandcourier.com

City leaders are in the midst of a national search for a developer tasked with creating housing, offices, retail and research space covering about 20 acres of “virgin territory” near Brittlebank Park.

The Horizon Project eventually would be an estimated $1 billion investment in the city and could include about 2 million square feet of new buildings — roughly the size of two Citadel Malls, according to people involved in the planning.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and the project’s other key proponents call the redevelopment “nationally significant” and say it would bring jobs, tax revenue and new energy to an undeveloped part of the peninsula.

Other similar grand-scale initiatives, however, have bred controversy and have had only limited success. East Baltimore Development Inc.’s project in Maryland and Columbia’s Innovista complex are among them.

During a press conference Monday on the top floor of the Marriott Hotel overlooking the target site, Horizon Project organizers distributed artists’ renderings and described their vision for the area bounded by Lockwood Boulevard, Hagood Avenue and Fishburne and Spring streets. Much of the tract is now covered by surface parking lots.

Little is known, though, about the ultimate scope of the project or its timeline for completion. It could be decades before the so-called “mixed use” area is built out, organizers said. Phase one includes plans for a city parking garage.

Ray Greenberg, president of the Medical University of South Carolina, said he embraces an “if you build it, they will come” attitude. But he acknowledged that Horizon Project leaders eventually might need to rein in their vision.

If market conditions and demand are better than expected, though, the project could be expanded, Riley added.

Leaders from the Horizon Project, a nonprofit group that includes representatives from the city of Charleston and MUSC, want to select a developer by January. The nonprofit has not yet filed financial disclosures with the IRS, but organizers said it has generated no income to date and that interim director Lawrence Thompson is its only paid staffer.

The city created a special tax district for the project in 2008 with the intention of raising money to pay for public roads, sidewalks and other utilities. That district has not raised any money yet, according to the city.

Horizon leaders — who have been planning the project for more than seven years — are soliciting bids for the city- and MUSC-owned land. A presentation for prospective bidders is scheduled for Wednesday, and proposals are due in mid-November.

The organizers’ vision appears to have buy-in from its Westside neighbors, despite the threat of rising property taxes. Arthur Lawrence, president of the Westside Neighborhood Association, said residents of the financially mixed area are happy about the prospect of new jobs. Additionally, 15 percent of new housing will be set aside for low-income residents, Lawrence pointed out.

Of the potential for eventual property tax hikes, City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie said: “It’s inevitable that it’s going to happen. We’ve got some time to work that out.”

About 20 percent of the Horizon Project would be housing, and organizers said they expect high demand from medical students, hospital workers and others for what they called a “live-where-you-work” lifestyle.

New lab space in the district would augment the region’s biotech research capacity, Horizon Project’s leaders said. MUSC has new drug discovery and bioengineering buildings, Greenberg noted, and the S.C. Research Authority research incubator space on Meeting Street, which opened in 2009, is finally fully leased. That space’s newest tenant, however, is a local publisher rather than a medical research company.

Horizon leaders looked at “public-private” projects in Philadelphia and Baltimore while planning the Charleston initiative, Greenberg said. Results for those projects have been mixed.

The East Baltimore project, a joint effort of that city and Johns Hopkins University, has delivered only a fraction of what it promised, due in part to the recession. In the works for a decade, it recently led to angry protests from the affected neighborhoods’ residents.

Greenberg said the Horizon Project has taken note of past failures. He differentiated the Charleston project by saying the other cities’ efforts involved redeveloping areas where structures already existed.

Columbia’s Innovista is another initiative that aimed to create a live-where-you-work high-tech research community. That project stalled when it struggled to raise private money.

Riley and Greenberg said they would avoid Innovista’s problems by taking a piecemeal approach to the Horizon Project.

“I think they overestimated their ability to bring in private-sector business,” said Greenberg, who once served on Innovista’s board.

He said Innovista failed to pick a developer that suited the project’s needs.

“We’ll be very deliberate about picking a developer,” he said.