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Visions of progress

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Visions of progress

Charleston's Upper Peninsula Initiative aims to lay out a vision for development in the East Central neighborhood and other areas between the Cooper River and Interstate 26, from Lee to Milford streets.

A large slice of the Charleston peninsula dominated by warehouses and low-income housing projects is becoming the new hot-spot for development, and competing visions for the area are emerging even as land changes hands and construction cranes rise.

Advocates for high-tech business development, eco-friendly building practices, bicycling and transit alternatives, and high-density construction are already at the table. Those who want more low-income housing, more parking spaces, and more jobs for the poor are there as well.

Already, trendy restaurants have been moving up Morrison Drive, some businesses have relocated up Meeting Street, and multistory apartments and hotels are rising on Huger Street.

"It's been a gold mine up there," said John Kammeyer, who has operated Rug Masters on Morrison Drive at Romney Street for 25 years. "I wish I was 15 years younger and had bought more property."

With different visions have come competing efforts to rebrand the area, roughly between Morrison Drive and Interstate 26, as the Creative Corridor, NoMo (north Morrison), the Upper Peninsula, the Charleston EcoDistrict, or CharlestonUP.

Charleston's planning director, Tim Keane, said more development is coming to the area regardless of what it's called, and the city can help shape what takes place with zoning rules and design standards.

"It's about neighborhoods that people want to live and work in," he said. "If it develops in a more urban, dense way and we incorporate things like remote parking, it could improve the quality of life for everyone on the peninsula."

Whether existing upper peninsula residents and business owners want the area to serve as remote parking for downtown visitors and hospitality industry workers is another question.

Dan Schneider moved his 50-employee company SIB Development and Consulting from downtown Charleston to the upper peninsula last year. He said a need for more space was the main reason, but getting away from downtown traffic and parking hassles has been a plus for employees.

""With this part of the peninsula, it's fantastic for people who live in Mount Pleasant or North Charleston or West Ashley, in terms of coming to work," Schneider said. "I think they (the city planners) just need to let businesses figure out the best uses for the area and let it happen."

The city's initial plans don't call for significant changes in the upper peninsula's residential areas, which are mostly along Meeting Street and in the Silver Hill community, and no changes to existing public housing. The focus is on the more industrial properties now dominated by parking lots and low warehouses.

A centerpiece of the city's concept calls for developing a multiblock, multistory commercial complex to foster high-tech businesses and other companies.

Some worry that amid the development rush, longtime residents will be left behind, or worse, driven from the area.

Nearly three-quarters of the roughly 1,300 homes in the upper peninsula area are low-income rentals, mostly in projects owned by the Charleston Housing Authority.

At a meeting that attracted about 120 people Thursday to discuss plans for the area, several city residents expressed fears about rising real estate taxes and a potential loss of affordable housing.

"The residents need to be protected," said Arthur Lawrence, a Westside resident and longtime neighborhood leader. "Those people continue to be pushed out."

Charleston's East Central neighborhood makes up the heart of the upper peninsula, and Neighborhood Council President Elizabeth Jenkins said the few hundred residents who own their homes are constantly being approached by people hoping to buy their properties.

"It was never like that before," she said. "This area was considered an eyesore before."

Jenkins said that, now that the area is desirable, maybe the city will address the overgrown trees on Meeting Street, the flooding on side streets, and the overgrown weeds near the railroad line.

"This would never happen if it was downtown, on Broad Street," she said. "Spread some of that joy on us, too."

Latonya Gamble, an East Side resident and former neighborhood president, remembers when developers and home buyers drove up real estate prices in her community in the early 2000s, causing residents' property tax bills to soar when Charleston County reassessed property in 2005. She worries that the same could happen in the upper peninsula.

Statewide property tax reform that was approved in 2006 protects homeowners from large tax increases now, but many residents are unaware the rules have changed, or simply don't believe it.

Similarly, Keane pledges that no publicly owned low-income housing will be eliminated - in fact, he said more will be built - but there's great skepticism.

City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, a former U.S. Housing and Urban Development official, said there were times in the past when low-income housing on the peninsula was demolished, so it's hard to convince people that won't happen again.

"I think it's tough, given the track record," he said.

In the upper peninsula planning area, the 300-unit Bridgeview apartment complex is privately owned, and the Charleston Housing Authority owns most of the remaining low-income housing.

"The units that we own are not going anywhere," said Authority Director Don Cameron.

Councilman Robert Mitchell represents the area that includes Bridgeview. Mitchell said he's spoken to the owner, and "he was adamant about keeping it for people with low incomes."

Keane said that "equitable development" will be a guiding principal as the city looks at the area.

"We want the people that live here now to continue to live here and have opportunities," Keane said. "The next thing that's going to be done in the old (Cooper River) bridge footprint is low-income housing."

Even before the real estate meltdown and the Great Recession, new development was moving up Meeting Street and Morrison Drive, in some cases with active government assistance.

A biotechnology business incubator called the Innovation Center was opened in 2009 on Meeting Street near Cool Blow Street, in a former mattress factory owned by the city. The South Carolina Research Authority spent $5.5 million upfitting the building, which is meant to help fledgling health science companies affiliated with Medical University of South Carolina.

Nearby, a modern mid-rise condo and office building called One Cool Blow also opened in 2009.

One Cool Blow was the first private development in the city to include some "workforce housing" units, sold at below-market prices to people with moderate incomes, with restrictions on the prices for which they could be sold in the future. That's a strategy the city has pursued with other multi-story residential developments, offering things like relaxed parking requirements in return for workforce housing units.

When the real estate crash hit, kicking off the worst recession in generations, most private development froze up across the city for several years. During that time, however, the privately funded Meeting Street Academy school was built at Meeting and Cool Blow streets on land the city had purchased for $4.75 million.

The roughly $9 million school building and the school's operations were funded by Sherman Financial Group, a company that buys distressed debt. The nonprofit school serves families that can't afford private school tuition.

Keane said the city isn't a developer or builder, but with the school and the Innovation Center, the city did spend millions to help make those developments happen.

When the real estate market came back to life after the recession, it came roaring back on the peninsula. Plans for hotels, apartments and restaurants downtown were dusted off and buildings were quickly under construction. In the upper peninsula area, a new apartment building called East Central was constructed on Huger Street, a tall hotel is planned nearby, and another high-rise of apartments meant for college students is under construction on Morrison Drive next to the Ravenel Bridge off-ramp.

New restaurants and bars that earlier ventured into the area, such as Santi's and Taco Boy, were joined by others including The Tatooed Moose, Royal American, Edmund's Oast, Hello my name is BBQ, DeSano Pizza Bakery and Palmetto Brewing.

Concerns about too much college-related housing, which could conflict with the city's plan for a new high-tech business cluster, prompted Charleston to rezone an area along Morrison Drive to prohibit residential uses, scuttling a sale that Charleston County had planned.

The city considers development of those blocks a key initiative to anchor growth in the upper peninsula, but its vision may not match the county's, and the county owns most of the land.

"I was very disappointed in the action the city took to thwart our development plan for 995 Morrison Drive," County Administrator Kurt Taylor said. "It was something I had worked on for two years."

The county hasn't adopted the city's vision for development there, which includes parking garages and multi-story commercial buildings with solar panels on top.

"We're working on a master site plan," said Taylor. "We want to take what the city has in mind and put our own thoughts to it."

The county's property, current home of a magistrate's office and other county functions, sits next to a tract the city acquired on Morrison Drive for the planned Flagship III tech business incubator. The city and county properties together cover about 10 acres.

As residents, city planners and interest groups look at the upper peninsula's urban streets, it's easy to overlook a nearby but out-of-the-way property that could have a great impact on the area's future.

At the end of Romney Street, past the county's recycling center, sits Laurel Island. It's 160 acres of high ground with expansive river and marsh views, where a resort-style development with hotels and a marina was proposed 10 years ago.

As desirable as the property sounds, there's a catch. Much of the land used to be a county garbage landfill, which complicates and may limit the development possibilities.

"We're looking at all of our options because of what's happened on Morrison Drive," said Robert Clement, president of CC&T Real Estate Services, the local agent for Philadelphia-based property owner Lupert-Adler. "We think this is the next new area."

Clement said former landfill sites are not uncommon on the Charleston peninsula, and the fact that Laurel Island was used for a landfill is "really no big deal."

The property, he said, "is a hidden gem."

Charleston County's recycling center sits at the entrance to the island property, but the county will be selling that land soon.

As developers and business owners continue to push forward, the city will move ahead with its planning effort, which includes an initiative to make buildings more ecologically friendly with features such as rainwater storage and solar panels or plant-covered roofs.

"I think this area is poised for greatness," Gregorie said, "if we do it right."

Reach David Slade at 937-5552

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