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'Whole face' of Charleston's Market is changing, as drainage, other work starts up

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Major changes are coming to one of the Charleston peninsula's most-visited streets. 

The city is preparing to start the final stage of drainage improvements on Market Street around Charleston's popular City Market, a heavily trafficked part of the peninsula that struggles with frequent flooding. And it's coordinating that work with other long-planned aesthetic moves to put power lines underground, enhance sidewalks and add trees.  

That means several years of construction work are ahead, temporarily blocking sections of the street and impacting movement in the city's tourism center.

And while the city's drainage project is under way, more private construction is expected to unfold around it, including a high-profile hotel and retail development set for the market area's largest surface parking lot. 

"The whole face of the Market is changing," said Dan Riccio, the Director of Livability and Tourism for the city of Charleston.

Market Street

Charleston City employee Tiffany Brown prepares to place a medallion on an Old South tourist carriage at the medallion booth located on North Market Street at Church Street Monday, August 5, 2019. Brad Nettles/Staff

Coordination 'really is the challenge'

Actual construction work on the drainage project will take at least three to four years, said Matthew Fountain, the city's stormwater management director. The project could be completed in a shorter time frame if the area were to be shut down completely, but that wasn't a realistic option, he said. 

In order to minimize business disruption at the City Market and surrounding retailers, construction will be done one block at a time.  

That incremental process also creates a complicated puzzle for planners who have to reconcile the demands of the construction work itself with traffic from pedestrians, vehicles, pedicabs and horse-or-mule-drawn carriages and with the needs of market vendors and other businesses.

"That coordination really is the challenge for this part of the project," Fountain said. 

The city will hire a full-time staffer to facilitate communication with local business owners and other stakeholders, Fountain said. 

Right now, the city is working with Charleston Water System to finalize details involving the existing water and sewer lines under Market Street. Once that is complete, the plans will go to Dominion Energy. 

Dominion is bringing all of the overhead power along the street underground. Once the power company has finalized its part of the plans, they will go back to the city for the bidding process on construction work to begin. 

That process usually takes about two months, Fountain said, and Dominion's portion of the planning is expected to be completed around the end of the calendar year, so construction on the drainage system likely won't start until spring 2020. 

By those estimates, the earliest the project would be completed is mid-2023.

The city already has finished about $20 million worth of drainage improvement projects on Market Street, starting more than a decade ago. The first phase of that work was in 2006, when improvements were made to a pump station on Concord Street, increasing the total pumping capacity for the area. 

Lowcountry Photos of 2013 (copy)

A cyclist navigates Market Street flooded by a heavy rain in Charleston. File/Staff

A second phase, which was started in 2012, included digging out a 10-foot diameter tunnel deep under Market Street and building a series of vertical shafts to carry stormwater into it. 

This third and final phase, which will cost upward of $10 million, will create a new and larger surface collection and conveyance system — a way for rainfall to flow easily from the street surface into the new shafts and tunnel. 

Currently, flood waters pool up at varying depths in the street before they flow into one of the shafts, Fountain said. 

In addition to the drainage work, the city is also using the project as an opportunity to complete aesthetic improvements to the street and sidewalk extending from Meeting Street to East Bay — similar to upgrades on King Street made several years ago. This work will include adding granite curbs, bluestone sidewalks, decorative crosswalks and new trees. 

New benches, bike racks, trash cans and streetlamps may also be installed, Fountain said.

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Meanwhile, in the private sector

The Market Street area is a focus for new downtown development, including a large mixed-use complex planned for what currently is a surface parking lot bordered by Church, Pinckney, Anson and North Market streets. 

Those plans include a 115-unit hotel, multiple retail areas, at least one restaurant, a ballroom, condos and underground parking. The full project site is more than 52,000 square feet and could rise as high as five stories in some sections. 

In April, a city zoning board approved a request to develop a hotel there. Its design is currently moving through the Board of Architectural Review's approval process. 

The developer, Somera Capital Management, has said it is aiming for a five-star property that would become a defining feature of the Market area.

Somera already has spent a year negotiating a private party agreement with the Ansonborough Neighborhood Association that specified restrictions on building heights, traffic plans and the number of guest rooms. 

Association president John Marsland said the vast majority of the neighborhood's concerns were addressed, but both the Preservation Society and Historic Charleston opposed the approval of the hotel, arguing that it would contribute to an already overly dense concentration of hotels downtown.

"That concentration really seems to be highlighted in the Market area," said Leah Farrell of the Preservation Society. 

In addition to the 13 hotels already operating in the area before 2014, nine more have either been opened or have received some level of approval from the city since then, according to the Preservation Society.

Another proposed hotel at the Carroll Building, a brick structure on North Market Street that used to house the Art Institute of Charleston, is also possible, but a request to build a lodging there hasn't been reviewed by the city so far. 

Carriage station on the move

The specifics of how and when Market Street stores and restaurants are affected by the drainage work aren't known, but a plan is already in place for the carriage industry, whose tours all originate from the Market area.

Before departing on a tour, every carriage has to check in at a city-owned booth on Market Street to receive its tour route assignment. That booth will be torn down soon to make way for Somera's new mixed-use development. 

Originally, the city looked into the cost of building a permanent brick structure at North Market and Anson streets, which would cost between $250,000 and $300,0000, said Riccio of Livability and Tourism. 

Instead, Riccio said the city hopes to purchase a van that could act as a "mini mobile command center" for carriage tours. Such a system would allow also the city and carriages to move around as drainage work is done. 

The van would have a permanent parking space at the same spot where a brick booth would have been built, but the van could also move to somewhere else to account for road closures during the lengthy work.

The full cost of the mobile unit, including the amount needed to buy the van and outfit it with equipment would be about $100,000. 

Riccio said moving to a mobile system seemed to fit with other recent upgrades in the way the city monitors the carriage industry, including the implementation of GPS-enabled devices and the use of tablets to track tours.

"There's a lot of change in the area," Riccio said, "and this would make us ready to adapt." 

Reach Emily Williams at 843-937-5553. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

Emily Williams is a business reporter at The Post and Courier, covering tourism and aerospace. She also writes the Business Headlines newsletter and co-hosts the weekly news podcast Understand SC.

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