Charleston Naval Hospital

Charleston County is considering building a new social services center on property that was once the Shipwatch Square shopping center, foreground, while a potential buyer of the former Charleston Naval Hospital, background, considers a mostly residential redevelopment of that 10-story building. Brad Nettles/Staff

The former Charleston Naval Hospital could be renovated as a housing high-rise if a local company known for renovating historic buildings completes a purchase deal with the county as planned.

It's been seven months since WECCO Development proposed buying the 10-story hospital building and the 23-acre property it sits upon from Charleston County. Company principal William Cogswell Jr. said an agreement is now "very close."

"We've done a lot of due diligence and homework," said Cogswell, who also represents Charleston in the state House. "It would be an opportunity to do it right."

The long-vacant 175-bed hospital is the tallest building in North Charleston, and its future is considered an important piece in the puzzle of revitalizing the city's struggling south end.

Cogswell said his company has no plans to tear the building down.

Efforts to redevelop the building began in 2012 when North Charleston bought the property in a federal government auction for $2 million. A subsequent redevelopment plan that aimed to turn three floors of the building into a new home for county social services failed dramatically, costing Charleston County more than $35 million.

The county's much-delayed plan to relocate a number of social services to that part of North Charleston — some are now located in Charleston's downtown medical district — is another piece of the redevelopment puzzle.

The county is now considering constructing a new building for those services across Rivers Avenue from the Naval Hospital property, on what used to be the Shipwatch Square shopping center.

Just prior to receiving Cogswell's offer for the hospital property in late spring, Charleston County had planned to spend an estimated $6 million to demolish the hospital building, and at least $42 million more to construct a social services building on the hospital property. The offer from WECCO prompted the county to reconsider the social services location.

The price tag on the WECCO offer has not been disclosed and remains in negotiation but "is better than you think," County Council Chairman Elliott Summey has said.

The county had planned to demolish the hospital building after staff and consultants concluded it would cost $66 million to complete renovations.

“There are still all sorts of issues with the building," said Councilman Herb Sass, who has been involved in negotiations with Cogswell's company.

Cogswell and county officials said plans for the hospital property at Rivers and McMillan avenues include the creation of a previously announced transit hub. A bus rapid transit system planned from Summerville to Charleston would run along Rivers Avenue, enhancing the transit hub concept.

“I’m really hoping we can prove a lot of the points you hear in smart-growth planning sessions," Cogswell said. Specifically, the Naval Hospital property could offer high-density residential housing and access to mass transit, near public services and businesses.

Cogswell's company WECCO is known locally for redeveloping the Cigar Factory in Charleston, building the One Cool Blow condominiums in the North Morrison Drive area, and is currently redeveloping the historic Garco Mill in North Charleston's Park Circle area.

The hospital property is in an Opportunity Zone, which opens the door to federal tax incentives.

While county officials have been generally pleased by the prospect of selling the former hospital rather than paying $6 million to tear it down, that's left the county with questions about where to locate social services, including inpatient drug treatment.

"It's not completely settled," Summey said. “We would not be going back to the Naval Hospital." 

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The idea of moving social services to the hospital building was part of a redevelopment plan originally pitched by Donald Trump Jr. The county eventually backed out of that much-delayed redevelopment plan, prompting the developers to declare bankruptcy and sue the county, which led to the county deciding to purchase the property.

Early this year, the county decided to demolish the hospital building and build a new social services hub, but dropped that plan when the WECCO offer arrived.

Then, the county considered buying the vacant Verizon building next to North Charleston City Hall to house social services, but that concept ran into problems over state licensing for medical uses, according to several county council members.

“Yeah, that’s not going to work," said Sass. “When we first saw it, it looked like a great idea, but there were some obstacles we couldn’t overcome."

"We also investigated building it (a social services building) in another location, across from the hospital," he said. "That might be our best option.”

Across from the hospital is the Shipwatch Square property, which the city of North Charleston owned, cleared for redevelopment, and then sold at a loss in 2017. Initial plans called for a much-needed grocery store there, but plans for a Piggly Wiggly were dropped and some of the land was recently sold to the Spinx convenience store chain.

In September, Charleston County Council approved a large issuance of debt, bonds that would pay for the proposed community services hub. The money hasn't yet been borrowed, but the council approved borrowing up to $59,176,000 for that purpose.

“I doubt it will be resolved by the end of the year, but we’re really trying to get this thing moving," said Sass.

Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.

David Slade is a senior Post and Courier reporter. His work has been honored nationally by Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Scripps foundation and others. Reach him at 843-937-5552 or dslade@postandcourier.com