N. Chas. project raising concerns

The former Naval Hospital that is undergoing redevelopment.

Plans to revitalize part of North Charleston by redeveloping the city’s tallest building, with Charleston County as the anchor tenant, are running so far behind schedule that the county will no longer estimate when it might occupy the former Naval Hospital. The delays have stalled the county’s related plan to sell $17 million of property in downtown Charleston to the Medical University of South Carolina. The county property on Charleston Center Drive is used by staff who are slated to relocate to the North Charleston building at Rivers and McMillan avenues.

“This thing is completely stuck in a ditch,” said County Councilman Joe Qualey, who opposed the hospital building lease. “The thing has dragged on and dragged on.”

Council Chairman Elliott Summey, who supported the plan, said the hospital renovation project hasn’t cost the county any money, and there’s no rush. The building is privately owned, and the county would be a tenant.

“We’re not in desperate hurry to move,” Summey said. “When they are ready we’ll be ready, and that’s that.”

Utah lawyer Doug Durbano is the principal developer. He said the project is on schedule, “based on the change orders and other added requests to comply with licensing and certificate of occupancy requirements that are new and or unique to the county.”

“Things are moving along in a normal and orderly fashion,” he said. “The focus on this project has been on price and quality, not an artificial timing deadline.”

County Councilman Herb Sass is among those who are getting worried.

“It’s running real late,” said Sass, a real estate appraiser. “I’m very concerned about it.”

The county’s goal is to consolidate services, including inpatient drug and alcohol treatment and a methadone clinic, at a location closer to many clients and accessible to mass transit. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is reviewing a permit application for the new site, DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley said.

The county Coroner’s Office also was supposed to move to the hospital but will not.

“The coroner decided the building did not meet her requirements, so we bought another building,” County Administrator Keith Bustraan said Monday. “The upshot is, (the Naval Hospital offices) are still not ready for occupancy.”

The 10-story building on 23 acres is owned by Durbano’s company, Chicora Life Center LC, which bought the long-vacant hospital building last year from North Charleston for $5 million after the city bought it from the federal government for $2 million.

Donald Trump Jr, son of the real estate tycoon running for president, is a minority investor in the venture.

In addition to project delays, the company is facing two lawsuits over unpaid compensation for work on the hospital project, from real estate firm Lee & Associates, over commission related to the county lease, and from Matthew Moore, whose June lawsuit says the company failed to pay him $11,000 owed for engineering services.

“That’s between Mr. Durbano and his contractors,” Bustraan said.

Durbano said he hasn’t seen the claim filed by Moore and could not comment. The Lee & Associates claim, filed in December, unsuccessfully went through arbitration and is awaiting further court proceedings.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, who is Council Chairman Summey’s father, had hoped to sell both the hospital property and a vacant shopping center site across the street to the same developer, and said the primary goal of the redevelopment was to attract a full-service grocery story to the city’s south end. A year ago, the developers declined to buy the shopping center site, and the plan for the hospital site began to focus on health care services. North Charleston has continued to hope for more.

“In addition to county services and announced private ventures, residents could also soon see everything from a grocery store and deli/cafeteria to a fitness club and rooftop Zen and water garden,” said a statement the city issued 12 months ago. “Extensive walking and biking trails, a community recreation center, library, museums and more are all also possible.”

The $5 million paid to North Charleston for the hospital property included $1 million set aside as an incentive to attract a grocery store to a portion of the vacant land at Rivers and McMillan avenues. North Charleston spokesman Ryan Johnson said the city has reached out to many grocery store operators without success.

For now, the hospital buildings’ tenants will include the county drug and alcohol treatment services, and the nonprofit Fetter Health Care Network, which plans to relocate pediatric services from a North Charleston office on Comstock Avenue, and then add more health care services for women.

Fetter’s marketing director, Marilyn Hemingway, said the organization still plans to move to the hospital site, when it’s ready.

Durbano said the county’s office space should be complete “we hope very soon, perhaps this fall.”