Planners and developers are realizing that, after years of sitting dormant, lower North Charleston is ideal for growth because it's both affordable and centrally located.
There's a lot happening, both seen and unseen, on the city's south end that could reshape the area in years to come.
On corridors such as Reynolds and Spruill avenues, old, dilapidated buildings have been redeveloped into retail shops and restaurants featuring businesses like Grifter and Quan's on King.
On the former Navy base, the city is transforming the Admiral's House into a bed-and-breakfast. Quarters K, which housed officers and their families, was refurbished into an event venue.
Other plans haven't yet been realized, such as efforts to redevelop the old Naval Hospital, attract a grocery store to the former Shipwatch Square Shopping Center site or implement the Lowcountry Rapid Transit bus system that calls for a 26-mile-long route, mostly through North Charleston.
Residents and those close to the community have long appreciated the area's worth.
“I see potential on the southern end," said Omar Muhammad, president of the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities.
Despite several efforts by planners to inform residents of the incoming changes, many in the community are unaware, Muhammad said.
North Charleston's southern end includes a diverse population of people, many of whom juggle multiple jobs to provide for their families.
It’s a part of the Charleston metro area that’s suffered greatly, particularly since the Navy base closed in 1996. It’s an area where median family income sits just below $40,000, many families spend more than 40 percent of their incomes on rent, and basic services are lacking.
Here, individuals may not be as concerned, or even have the time, to attend neighborhood meetings about new development, Muhammad said.
“When the bulldozers are coming down the street, that’s when they notice," he said. "It's too late.”
State Rep. William Cogswell Jr., R-Charleston, is a real estate business owner and has a front-row seat for the redevelopment going on in North Charleston. His company is redeveloping the GARCO Mill building in Park Circle. He also has a deal to purchase the former Naval Hospital at Rivers and McMillan avenues, and with partners owns a number of properties on the former Navy base nearby.
“To me, it’s basically geography,” Cogswell said. “It’s kind of in the bull’s-eye.”
To the south, the Charleston peninsula is growing explosively, with new luxury apartment buildings and hotels. To the north, new residential developments with thousands of homes each are underway in Berkeley and Dorchester counties, and businesses are following.
And there’s North Charleston, right in the middle.
“I’ve never seen an area that’s so much the hole in the doughnut,” said Lance Robbins, CEO of Urban Smart Growth in Los Angeles. He participated in the 2019 Urban Land Institute study of North Charleston and the Naval Hospital site.
Among other things, the study recommended developing the area around Rivers and McMillan avenues as a “community services hub” — something Charleston County is in the process of doing.
The study also called for more housing, which would put more people in the area and attract more businesses that offer the goods and services the area lacks.
Cogswell’s company plans to rehabilitate the former Naval Hospital, the tallest building in the city, and turn it into hundreds of apartments. Across Rivers Avenue, a new Charleston County services building is planned, and a library.
“It’s not whether this might happen — it is happening — and once it starts, it will accelerate, as we’ve seen in other parts of the Charleston area,” he said.
Lowcountry Rapid Transit
Planners and residents have high hopes for the planned bus rapid-transit system's ability to decrease traffic and spur development.
Commercial investors aren't as confident.
The route is from U.S. Highway 78 in Summerville, down Rivers Avenue through North Charleston and southward toward downtown Charleston. It will include 24 buses that can each carry up to 90 residents.
It's expected to transport 6,800 riders daily, according to the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments. As far as how many people will leave their vehicles to get on the bus, COG officials said 2012 studies showed 2,400 would have left their cars to use the public transit system at the time.
Buses will run in dedicated lanes and will hit stations every 10 minutes during peak hours, the agency said.
"It's key that you design it to be fast and rapid," said Sharon Hollis, principal planner with COG. "We are trying to build it to be as rapid as we can get it.”
The $380 million project involves building transit stations on Rivers Avenue, where the rapid transit buses will have their own lanes. Crosswalks and a multiuse path for cyclists and walkers are part of the plan, which is expected to be completed in 2025.
“It’s essentially a rebuilding of that entire road," Hollis said.
The section that could see a significant amount of transit-oriented development includes the intersection that contains the former Shipwatch Square site and old Navy Hospital.
The site is also where planners want to install a new county building. Nearby is Reynolds Avenue, which was a popular downtown district in the 1960s. Buildings that once housed a clothing store and a drug store have been refurbished into apartment units and a space for a bakery.
On Rivers Avenue, employees of different cultural backgrounds work among the eclectic mix of businesses, a barbershop, pizza store and Caribbean food shop.
Many of these workers hadn't yet heard about the transit line but welcomed news of an affordable means of transportation that could spur growth.
Abdel Rezk lives in Hanahan and uses buses or a ride from a friend to get to his job at New York Pizzeria on Rivers Avenue. Rezk said there are often long waits for a bus and welcomed news of a more-reliable transportation system.
So did Jai Brisbane, who takes Uber regularly to work at Caribbean Delight on Rivers Avenue from her home on the peninsula.
“Maybe I could save money,” she said.
Planners anticipate BRT fares will be $2.
Caribbean Delight, which opened five years ago to offer residents a wide range of island foods, is at the corner of Reynolds and Rivers avenues, where efforts have been underway to revive what was once a vibrant economic hub.
Brisbane embraces the idea of the transit system increasing foot traffic at the shop and attracting new shops and apartments, saying it would be good for the community.
'It's a ways out'
Commercial real estate agents say it’s too early for investors to make commitments along a transit line that is not a reality yet.
“It’s a long way from being built,” said Chris Fraser with commercial real estate firm Avison Young.
Fraser said people are talking about it, but until the actual stops are decided and land-use regulations are in place, developers are going to sit on the sidelines.
Milton Thomas with commercial real estate firm Lee & Associates called the bus route a great idea to alleviate traffic, especially on Interstate 26, but he thinks most investors are taking a wait-and-see approach.
“From a brokerage side, we haven’t had anybody inquire about the rapid bus route,” Thomas said.
He noted, too, it could be several years before its comes to fruition.
“It’s a ways out," Thomas said. “Nobody is going to sit on land that long.”
Officials are confident of the system's success because they are modeling it after transit lines that have done well in other parts of the country.
Richmond opened its rapid bus route 18 months ago and is already seeing development along the line, according to Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey, who toured and rode on the Virginia capital’s bus route in late January.
Two grocery stores — Whole Foods and Lidl — which cater to two distinctly different markets, are now open along Richmond’s 7.5-mile bus route, and Summey said retail and apartment development has emerged along the corridor, not only immediately adjacent to the route but “several blocks deep."
“You see people coming in and see affordable housing coming in there," he said. "Affordable does not mean government-subsidized Section 8 housing, but workforce housing.”
One thing Summey said the people in Richmond are guarding against is gentrification of the budding developments. He said land-use policies need to be put in place for development along the Charleston route as well.
The realization that supermarkets opened along the Richmond line is encouraging for North Charleston’s southern end, where a food desert exists without any major grocery stores. One of the identified stops on the proposed route is at the old Shipwatch Square site at McMillan and Rivers avenues. North Charleston owns property there and believes it’s ideal for commercial and residential development.
“This could be a very big opportunity for North Charleston,” Summey said. “It could be a shot in the arm for the southern end of the city for sure. It also gives the city the ability to determine what it wants different areas to look like in commercial and residential development.”
Preparing for the future
North Charleston is in the process of updating its Comprehensive Plan, which serves as the municipality's guiding document. The city is working to ensure that proper zoning is in place to invite the right kinds of retail and housing developments, particularly around where the transit stops would be located.
A key factor will be to ensure that new housing developments are attainable and don't drastically increase costs for neighboring communities, where houses are occupied mainly by renters.
When redevelopment arrives in South Carolina communities, property tax laws generally protect homeowners, but renters can see rapid increases in rents. That dynamic could result in potentially rapid gentrification in North Charleston because so few of the homes are owner-occupied.
For example, Charleston County property records show that out of 84 single-family homes on eight mostly residential blocks between Spruill and Rivers Avenues, on both sides of Cosgrove Avenue, only 14 are owner-occupied, or less than 17 percent.
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said the city has to find ways ways to increase homeownership, which he said can be accomplished by bringing retail and job opportunities to the neighborhood.
It can also be achieved through proper zoning. Years ago, the city rezoned all properties in Chicora-Cherokee single-family residential to prevent the takeover of non-residential development. The schools in the community have also seen improvements, including the creation of a new elementary school.
What the mayor doesn't want to occur on the south end is what happened with Park Circle, which is located just 2 miles north of Chicora.
The once-affordable neighborhood has become a popular area with nearby restaurants and shops, and recently a 2,700-square-foot home sold for $625,000. Summey said that's more than the price for houses per square foot in North Charleston's Coosaw Creek, a gated Dorchester County community with a golf course.