On the Horizon Charleston design center director has sights set on redevelopment

Michael Maher, director of the Charleston Civic Design Center, talks about the Gaillard Auditorium project.

Brad Nettles

More than a decade in the works, it’s all coming together for Michael Maher and the Horizon Project.

Sitting in the second-floor studio of the Charleston Civic Design Center on Calhoun Street last week, Maher recalled the 1999 downtown plan that led both to the establishment of the design center and the planned redevelopment of the peninsula’s west side.

He remembered his interview with Mayor Joe Riley in the summer of 2001, from a phone booth in Bregenz, Austria, that led to his becoming the center’s first director.

And how, last week, after more consultation with Riley, with his wife and with city leaders in Jacksonville, Fla., Maher became the first chief executive of the Horizon Project Foundation, the organization responsible for the projected $1 billion, decades-long makeover of almost 20 acres of former landfill.

As involved in the project as anyone from its inception, its lull during the recession and its revival over the past year, Maher will now lead its execution. “To see it now at ... the crux of coming to reality,” Maher said, “that’s the kind of thing that ... a city maker thrives on.”

The district is surrounded by valuable pieces, he said: the Joseph P. Riley Jr. baseball stadium, Brittlebank Park, the Medical University of South Carolina and residential neighborhoods. Now he must “take the momentum and take all the work that’s been done and make it happen,” Maher said.

“This is the drive and the ambition for Horizon,” he said. “To create a locus for the biotechnology and research and development sector in a part of Charleston that wants to become more integrated.”

In contrast to the slow pace of urban development projects such as Horizon, Maher’s hiring happened rather quickly.

The Maher-led Horizon selection committee had just picked Atlanta-based Gateway Development Services Inc. as the first choice master developer, but he also was exploring other career horizons.

Maher was a finalist to become CEO of the Downtown Investment Authority in Jacksonville, a “very attractive opportunity,” he said. The Horizon board got wind that things were getting serious, so it took action.

“There was no application process,” Steve Bedard, the city’s finance chief, said last week. “The Jacksonville thing kind of spurred the initiative.”

“It was determined, if the terms of employment could be worked out, then he was the right guy to start out as the executive director of the Horizon Project Foundation,” he said.

Maher signed his contract a week ago today and withdrew from consideration for the Florida job. He will stay on as director of the Civic Design Center through the end of the year while taking charge of the Horizon Project.

While the new job eventually will limit Maher’s focus to one part of the city, it will come with a major pay raise. According to city salary data, he has been making about $82,000 a year in his current job. Bedard said Maher will make another $25,000 for his first six months as Horizon chief and then make $150,000 a year when he takes over full time Jan. 1.

“It really needs the level of intense scrutiny, the level of engagement and the ability to shepherd a lot of different partners who are working at it,” Maher said of the Horizon Project. “It really needs to have someone that’s living, breathing, working it every day.”

Board members and Maher all noted that he has served as a designer, architect and planner in Charleston for many years and worked closely with all the people involved in the Horizon Project.

Lawrence Thompson, who had been serving as Horizon’s interim director and only paid staffer, joined Riley’s staff as senior adviser in November and is now a member of Horizon’s operations committee.

“He has a deep working knowledge of the project, probably better than anyone,” Thompson said of Maher. “He’s suited for it and will do a great job.”

Riley said he will “absolutely” replace Maher as head of the Civic Design Center, possibly by the end of the year.

“It’s a very important position and even more so now with all of the development activity that’s going on and opportunity in the city,” the mayor said last week.

Maher was there toward the beginning, as the Civic Design Center identified what is now the Horizon district as a tract ripe for redevelopment. There were workshops; there was an understanding that more roads would be necessary to make it work.

The city created a special tax district for the project in 2008 with the intention of raising money through that vehicle to pay for public roads, sidewalks and other utilities. Then the economy tanked, and “ambitions of a project like this reasonably had to be put on hold,” Maher said.

In the meantime, the Horizon Project Foundation was set up, got the area rezoned for mixed uses, and worked with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to streamline any cleanup of the former landfill site.

“That’s all in place,” Maher said.

A little dusty but not dead, Horizon resurfaced in July.

It eventually drew six master developer candidates, which Maher’s selection committee narrowed to two, ranking Gateway ahead of Greenville-based Hughes Development Corp. last month.

The goal is to develop the largely empty area at Lockwood Drive, Hagood Avenue and Fishburne and Spring streets, into 2 million square feet of housing, offices and high-tech research space over the next 20-odd years.

Gesturing at an early schematic for the acreage last week, Maher said it will mainly focus on the surface lots in what he called “one big, giant ... 38-acre city block.” The area also contains existing city and MUSC office buildings, hotels and a fast-food restaurant or two.

“This represents a concept plan,” he said. “This is not what you’d call a master plan.”

The next step, Maher said, is for Horizon’s operations committee to hammer out a memorandum of understanding with Gateway on how to proceed. Maher said Gateway figures it will take about four months to develop the master plan, starting around July.

Gateway’s team includes Mount Pleasant-based retail developer WRS Inc. and multifamily-housing builder South City Partners.

“What you see here in six months’ time might look a little bit different than this,” he said.

Maher pledged to work with the surrounding community to make sure Horizon has not only research facilities, but also affordable housing and maybe even a grocery.

“The biggest challenges for the project are probably infrastructure and nature,” he said, referring to the tricky landfill soil that forms the district. A 1930s map in Maher’s studio shows when it was mostly water.

“You don’t build a road for cheap,” he said. “The roads have to built to a different standard.”

Maher and Gateway have a big vision for Horizon. But these things take time, Maher noted.

One of the Civic Design Center’s first undertakings in 2002 was the redevelopment of Concord Park. Just down Calhoun Street from the center’s pre-Civil War building, that redevelopment has produced only one building so far: 25 Calhoun St.

But construction of a new five-story apartment building for seniors is expected to begin later this year, and a hotel project could be not far behind.

Maher is taking the same long view of Horizon.

“I don’t think we’re under any illusions that this is anything but a long-term project,” Maher said. “Developments like this gain a foothold, but they take time.”

“But part of our charge,” Maher added, “is that it builds on the right foundation, (that) it has the right genetic code so it becomes a living, thriving piece of Charleston.”

Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter @kearney_brendan.