Live, learn, earn WestEdge aims to create medical research space combined with shops, homes

Artist’s rendering of site.

A long-planned redevelopment project that would replace surface parking lots with apartments, medical research space and retail along the Ashley River could move closer to reality this week when the first two buildings go before Charleston’s Board of Architectural Review for initial approval.

The Horizon Project Foundation — a nonprofit group formed to help the city and the Medical University of South Carolina revitalize a 22-acre site on the west end of the peninsula — will bring plans before the board Wednesday for an eight-story research and office building and an eight-story apartment tower built atop shops and restaurants and surrounding a five-story parking garage.

The two buildings would be the first of about a dozen in a district — to be named WestEdge — bound by Lockwood Drive, Fishburne Street, Hagood Avenue and the Septima Clark Expressway on what once was the site of the city’s landfill. Announced Friday, the WestEdge name is meant to give a nod to its location as well as evoke a “cutting edge” project, developers said.

Plans for the site, which includes property owned by the city and MUSC, have been kicking around since 1999, but the last recession put everything on hold.

“Now is the time and here is the place for this project to become real,” Michael Maher, the foundation’s CEO and a former urban designer for the city, said last week. He estimated that the total buildout will take between 15 and 25 years. At least 3,000 jobs could be created by the project.

Maher said the current site — a hodgepodge of hotels, outdated buildings, gravel parking and fast-food restaurants — “is not up to Charleston’s standards.”

“The West Side does not have the same kind of identity that the East Side does,” he said.

Maher said the site ultimately will leverage the research taking place at nearby MUSC and Roper Hospital by creating a place for private-sector biotechnology and other medical research firms to set up shop in a community where employees can live and shop.

“This is a place to live, learn and earn — places to live, places to work and do research but also the lifestyle that is so important with recreational activities, restaurants, shopping and outdoor cafes,” he said.

The first two buildings will be developed by Gateway Development Services. They represent a private investment of about $200 million and could be completed by early 2018 if permitting is obtained this year.

Mack Reese of Gateway said this type of live-work setup is popular with technology firms.

“Those companies want to be around research universities,” Reese said, adding that millennials also are migrating toward urban living spaces. “That’s a phenomenon that’s going to continue.”

At buildout, residential units will make up 51 percent of the WestEdge project, with 30 percent dedicated to research space and 10 percent for commercial development. The remaining 9 percent will include enhancements of existing properties. All told, about 2 million square feet of office, retail and residential space could be developed.

The apartment building going before the BAR this week will include 350 studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units with an undisclosed anchor grocery store and other retailers on the first floor. The apartments will surround a five-story, 890-space parking garage, keeping the parking structure hidden from the rest of the development.

The 151,000-square-foot office building will include research labs and offices as well as streetfront retail space on the first floor.

“I strongly believe that communities need to pivot if they want to progress,” Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said in a statement. “That’s what WestEdge represents; a shift that positions Charleston as a leader in the biotechnology research industry. WestEdge is a shining example of Charleston’s leadership in well-designed urbanism, and it will create a vitally important catalyst for economic growth.”

Dr. David Cole, president of MUSC, said the project will help the university “create a world-class health care capability and platform for the city that’s beyond even what we have now.” Already, about $250 million in research funding flows through the university.

Cole said WestEdge “will provide MUSC a competitive advantage in recruiting the brightest thought leaders in health care research and life sciences.”

A key feature of the project is a new road that will cut through the middle of the development — called WestEdge Road — that Maher said will “create a King Street for the West Side of the peninsula,” with a large pedestrian walkway fronting restaurants and shops. Maher said the foundation is close to signing the grocery tenant and has initial agreements with several other retailers.

The residences, retail and office space will be funded by private investments.

Public infrastructure will be financed through a special tax district the city created in 2008. That mechanism uses property taxes generated by new development to pay for amenities such as roads, water and sewer and parking garages over a 25-year period. It’s important because of the property’s past as a city dump.

The WestEdge site initially was marshland that was filled in when the city used the property for a municipal landfill between 1955 and 1973. Maher said there is as much as 12 feet of compacted trash topped by about two feet of soil that will have to be stabilized for construction.

Contamination on the site, created by the former landfill, will have to be contained so pollutants do not continue to leach into the Ashley River. And buildings will have to be equipped to monitor and vent any methane gas that might be created by the pollution.

Maher said the developers have applied for permits with the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to contain the landfill pollution, which will be done in stages as the project progresses.

It will be an expensive process that will be paid for by some of the $90 million to $180 million that will be generated by the special tax district. That money also will pay for parks, bike trails and other recreational space.

“This presents an exciting new approach to working, living and shopping on the peninsula and will positively impact Charleston on four distinct levels — environment, community, economy and health,” Maher said. “This is an incredible forward step in urban revitalization. Local neighbors and the economy will benefit from convenience, infrastructure improvements, high-wage jobs and new investment. The design of walkable, bikeable, vibrant spaces supports the research that will lead to life-changing discoveries.”

Developers say they have met with nearby residents who are largely supportive of the project, although there are concerns about the impact of density, additional traffic and residents and environmental issues.

“WestEdge is lifting up the entire region of peninsula Charleston,” Arthur Lawrence, a longtime West Side resident, said in a statement. “For years, the West Side struggled with identity, our own sense of place.”

Lawrence, past president of the West Side Neighborhood Association, said the WestEdge project will help the area position itself for the future.

“And our neighborhood schools will enjoy positive influence from nearly medical and technology businesses,” he said.

Delayed for years, the estimated $1 billion WestEdge deal was revived in 2012. The next year, Gateway Development Services of Atlanta was selected to oversee the redevelopment project. Gateway’s team includes Mount Pleasant-based retail developer WRS Inc. and multifamily-housing developer South City Partners of Atlanta.

Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_