The Mixson development plays a key role in North Charleston’s plan to revitalize its greater Park Circle area, but now the city may order the demolition of Mixson’s upscale apartment complex.
On Monday, city Chief Building Official Darbis Briggman told an attorney for The Flats at Mixson apartments that “it is imperative that you create a plan to evacuate and relocate the tenants in these buildings.”
An engineering firm hired by the complex’s owner, Atlanta-based Jamestown Properties, had determined in mid-March that the nine occupied apartment buildings were “structurally unsound and unsafe,” according to documents the city released Tuesday.
The 268-unit complex, where most buildings are less than 2 years old, has suffered from prolonged, ongoing water damage, the engineer’s letter said. One building was declared uninhabitable in mid-2015, but tenants continued to live in the other nine. The Flats was named the area’s “best apartment complex” that year in a City Paper reader poll.
Reviews on Yelp were far less kind, and some included photos of mold testing kits and water damage.
“We were just shocked by all the reviews that were so bad,” said Gabriel Francisco, 30, who moved to The Flats in September and said he had no issues with his apartment. “Now I guess we understand why.”
Several pending lawsuits are aimed at assigning the blame for the failing buildings — and determining who should pay as a result. The Flats at Mixson limited partnership is suing the general contractor, North Carolina-based Samet Corp., along with a host of subcontractors and project architect Niles Bolton Associates.
Samet acknowledged the buildings had issues with cracking stucco and water leaks just months after they opened, but its legal filings pointed blame at subcontractors and the architecture firm, which has denied wrongdoing. Samet is also suing three insurance companies.
As the spiderweb of litigation wends its way through the courts, the remaining tenants of The Flats face an immediate challenge: finding new homes. Callie Wamsley, a public relations manager for the business, would not say how many tenants still live there, or answer other questions, citing the litigation.
“The situation is terrible, especially with the housing market in Charleston,” said Mary Utsey, a 29-year-old nurse who has lived at The Flats since December. “Nobody wants to be uprooted from the place they are living.”
Tenants were told Monday by apartment managers that “there is concern that the buildings are not safe for long-term occupancy due to water intrusion which has caused structural issues.”
Utsey was paying $1,150 a month for a 1-bedroom apartment. She said the apartments were nice and she wasn’t inconvenienced by defects, although there were some obvious problems, such as the bracing supporting the apartment balconies.
Kate Jones, 29, said she saw some warning signs: The first floor of her building was mostly cleared out because of water damage; friends had to move between buildings because of renovation work; and Mixson started offering shorter leases.
The city will review the situation at a May 23 hearing of the Public Safety and Housing Committee. Based on prior experience with another Flats building that the city ordered vacated in July 2015, “extensive repair would be necessary — at a minimum — or a complete demolition may be required,” Briggman said.
In court documents, The Flats said the apartment complex cost $21.8 million to build, and it would take more than $18 million to repair, according to Samet’s estimates. Samet and its lawyers couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.
Jamestown Properties was told in March by its engineers that the still-occupied apartment buildings “have already lost their capacity to resist the lateral and gravity loads for which they were designed making them structurally unsound and unsafe.” A building’s “gravity load” is the weight of it and its contents, while “lateral load” refers to horizontal forces, such as winds and earthquakes.
More than a month after the engineers’ letter, The Flats’ lawyer, Jesse Kirchner, sent North Charleston’s attorney a letter requesting “an investigation by and some direction from the city.” That led to an inspection and Briggman’s letter Monday.
“Please understand that these issues impact the future habitability of the Flats and do not pose an immediate threat,” tenants were told in the letter from apartment management.
North Charleston spokesman Ryan Johnson said the city didn’t set a time frame for moving residents out. He said condemnation of the apartment buildings later this month is “a strong possibility.”
The 44-acre Mixson development, which includes a street named after Mayor Keith Summey, originally was planned as a dense new neighborhood of up to 950 single-family homes on small lots, planned by I’On developer Vince Graham. It was a component of a larger city vision to redevelop the former Charleston Naval Base and Park Circle area.
“Of course, the recession happened,” Johnson said.
The Mixson development changed ownership, and the near-term plan shifted to apartment buildings, which now dominate the site.
The city’s Park Circle area will likely not suffer from the failure of the apartment complex, Johnson said.
“For the larger Park Circle area, I don’t see much of an impact other than rents going up,” he said.