Restoring an old jewel

State health officials stopped work on the former Charleston Naval Base after demolition work there failed to properly contain asbestos, the white material pictured. PROVIDED

One day in the not-too-distant future, North Charleston’s Riverfront Park area may be a destination not only for those wanting to stroll along the river but also for those hoping to hear a concert, get a bite to eat or, in some cases, to arrive home.

That’s the vision emerging from a new city effort to plan for the future of the most scenic portion of the former Charleston Naval Base.

And it’s a vision partly rooted in the past. At the end of the 19th century, Charleston began creating Chicora Park here — a sort of Lowcountry version of New York’s Central Park, but one that quickly evaporated when President Teddy Roosevelt wanted to establish a naval base here.

Fast-forward more than a century to last year, when the city of North Charleston hired landscape architect Steve Dudash of Thomas and Hutton to create a master plan for the 70-acre tract on the base’s northern end — an area that already has seen a few other plans since the base closed two decades ago.

North Charleston City Council recently saw Dudash’s outline for new park areas, event venues, restaurants, cafes and housing in the Chicora Park area, which he called “one of the greatest and most precious jewels in this whole area.”

The area is roughly half the size of the nearby planned $280 million Palmetto Railways rail yard, scheduled to open in late 2019.

But unlike the flat expanse being converted into a rail yard, the Chicora site includes rolling hills, historic homes and a scenic creek.

“Our desire is to make sure that we maintain and preserve as much as possible the character of this particular place,” Dudash said.

The city has been working on plans for the redevelopment of the Navy Base area for about 15 years, and Mayor Keith Summey described the current planning as a long-range effort.

“This is an opportunity to develop something that we will hopefully start in our lifetime,” he said. “It may not be completed in our lifetime, but I think we owe it to the next generation to have it moving in the right direction so that we can protect part of our history and part of the history of the Naval Base.”

In 2001, Summey and developer John Knott unveiled what they then described as the largest urban revitalization project ever attempted in U.S. history: the Noisette project, named after the early 19th century botanist Phillipe Noisette. They planned to revitalize thousands of acres, while the company would play a more hands-on role in redeveloping the 350 acres at the former base’s northern tip.

The plan called for a new Riverfront Park to link to a 200-acre park surrounding Noisette Creek, up to 10,000 new and rehabilitated housing units, 6 million to 8 million square feet of retail space, revitalizing the city’s Old Village, improving 13 public schools, restoring Noisette Creek and creating four or five new museums.

That project was expected to take at least 15 years and $1 billion or more of public and private money.

While much of the city’s Park Circle area has been revitalized with new homes, new schools and new businesses, the Noisette Co. lost most of its holdings on the northern end of the base to foreclosure in recent years. It did construct the Riverfront Park for the city before going belly-up.

“Somebody told me the other day, ‘Boy, that Noisette plan was a complete failure.’ ” Summey said. “No, it wasn’t. The Noisette plan failed on the Navy Base... Now what we are doing is stepping back in to take part of that plan Noisette had for the base and trying to get it where we got some legs to it.”

Even after parting ways with Noisette, Summey continued to believe in the ideas behind it.

The current plans — still in a general, early stage — are just the first step of many, Summey said.

The completed project could include conference and event space in addition to restaurants, retail and residential areas similar to nearby Oak Terrace Preserve, a green/sustainable neighborhood built under a public-private partnership. The site could even be home to a bed and breakfast or boutique hotel in the future, officials said.

One of the most important parts of the development would be an iconic new footbridge across Noisette Creek to connect the Riverfront Park to the future Battery Park.

“The bridge has been part of the plan for a long time, but we really think it’s a critical piece right now” and should be part of the initial construction, Dudash said.

It would provide access to larger event venues on the north side of the site, he said.

Plans for that northern area include new parks surrounded by mid-rise buildings with offices, retail and apartments.

The existing Riverfront Park is situated to take advantage of views of the Cooper River, the only public waterfront in the state’s third-largest city. The plan calls for new development nearby but not enough to crowd it.

The area has a long history, officials said. In 1898, two plantations were combined to create Chicora Park, the Lowcountry’s first planned regional park. It was designed by the Olmsted brothers, whose father, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, designed New York City’s Central Park and hundreds of other projects throughout the country, including West Ashley’s Crescent neighborhood.

Originally designed as an escape for Charleston residents during hot summers, Chicora Park was to include a series of ponds, trails, two great lawns, a railway station, a boathouse, formal and informal gardens, and more. Before the work was finished, the park was purchased by the Navy, and the Charleston Naval Yard was established in 1901.

Dudash suggested that the new park be renamed Olmsted Park.

“Our vision and goal is to create a sustainable, livable open space that preserves, enhances and maintains its parklike character for all North Charleston residents to enjoy,” he said.

For the current plans, Thomas and Hutton drew inspiration from documents as varied as the Olmsted Master Plan, Noisette Master Plan and the National Register of Historic Places.

Dudash is taking an inventory of the existing buildings and how they can be incorporated into the project.

Chicora Park, which includes 40 buildings, structures, sites and objects, is on the National Register of Historic Places, as is the Charleston Navy Yard Officers’ Quarters Historic District and Charleston Navy Yard Historic District.

Recently, Eternal Father of the Sea, a 1942 nondenominational chapel, was moved from its spot in the bend of Hobson Street to a space near the officers’ quarters to make way for Palmetto Railway’s rail yard. The move was a joint project of Palmetto, the city of North Charleston and the Charleston Naval Complex Redevelopment Authority, which picked up the $2 million tab.

The project also would include removing some of the existing brick duplexes – built after World War II as part of the Capehart Housing Act of 1955. They are nondescript, poorly constructed and have no historical significance. They could be replaced with townhouses and single-family homes sprinkled throughout the tract.

Other buildings on the site, such as some officers’ housing, are in disrepair and in unlivable condition, with a few exceptions, according to Dudash.

Summey said an early phase of the development could sell existing homes and home sites to create a source of revenue to pay for other parts of the project.

“(Existing home sales) would be with the understanding the house would be brought back to the standard it should be,” Summey said. “It’s going to be interesting to see who is willing to move into a neighborhood that’s a public park. Let’s face it, all of our streets are public streets, but this is not just a public street, it’s people walking through to look at the beauty of that area and whatever we do, we don’t want to take that away from the fact.”

Any new construction will blend with existing buildings, he said. Dudash said the existing streets would remain but their traffic patterns could change.