Charleston City Council on Tuesday will discuss acquiring the site of a former Piggly Wiggly grocery store in West Ashley — possibly through eminent domain — a tool governments can use to force the sale of a private property if it's in the public's interest.
A proposed resolution going before council says the 2.5-acre site at Sam Rittenberg Boulevard and Sumar Street should be acquired by the city so it can be turned into a park with "supporting municipal buildings for recreation and public safety."
It also notes plans to improve the intersection where Sam Rittenberg and Old Towne Road merge at the northeastern tip of the property, commonly referred to as "the suicide merge."
It's the first major intersection in West Ashley for those entering the suburb from Interstate 26, making the triangle-shaped parcel a potential symbol of the West Ashley Revitalization effort if City Council signs off on its purchase and subsequent redevelopment.
The improvements could involve reconfiguring the streets and adding bike and pedestrian lanes, which are almost completely absent in that part of town.
Eminent domain can be a controversial approach if contested by the property owner or surrounding residents, and a court might be asked to determine if the city's taking of the property serves the public good.
Mayor John Tecklenburg said he hopes legal action won't be necessary, but he wants to make sure he has council's support if it comes to that.
Tecklenburg gave a campaign speech outside the so-called “Dead Pig” in November 2015, underscoring his commitment to revitalizing West Ashley. While some of the mayor's biggest proposals have failed to get past City Council since he took office last year, this one seems poised to gain the support it needs from most council members representing West Ashley.
"Frankly, most citizens West Ashley … recognize this is a gateway to this part of our city and it should reflect who we are," Tecklenburg said Thursday.
'The greater good'
The site is owned by Faison & Associates of Charlotte. The commercial development firm wanted to replace the store with a Sunoco convenience store and gas station, a concept rejected in September by the city's Design Review Board.
Residents at that meeting opposed the proposal for a large gas station with 20 pumps, which they said wouldn't align with the city's goals to improve West Ashley's largely outdated commercial areas. Instead, they called for a site plan that would help build a sense of community in the city's largest suburb.
Councilman Dean Riegel said the mayor's vision for Sumar Street would do just that.
"Acquiring this property would be for the greater good of our citizens," he said. "I don’t think Northbridge there really has a focal point or a retail gathering place, and I think that’s a next big evolution for our city to have parks and retail in a gathering place in this type of area."
Councilman Bill Moody, who represents part of West Ashley, said he might be open to using eminent domain if it's the city's only option to improve the intersection and the pedestrian paths there. But he wants to know more specifics about what municipal buildings might go on that site, and what type of park the city has in mind.
He said he's not so sure it's the best idea to spend a lot of money on landscaping if the public isn't really going to use a park there.
"I’m not going to send my grandkids over there to play in the middle of a traffic triangle," he said.
What's the deal?
While eminent domain allows the city to take over a private property, it still has to pay the fair market price for it. The negotiation process could lead to a legal fight if the city and Faison can't reach a deal.
Executives with the firm didn't return calls or emails requesting a comment Thursday.
The land is valued at about $1.95 million, the same price Faison paid for it three years ago, according to Charleston County property records. The city has appraised the property, but it's unclear how much it might be willing to pay.
Tecklenburg said he didn't want to make those details public before a deal is reached. Faison recently completed its own appraisal and could begin negotiating with the city in the next few months. Eminent domain may not be necessary, he said.
The former Piggly Wiggly building has stood vacant since 2013, around the same time the Charleston-based grocery chain sold 22 other stores to Bi-Lo and Harris Teeter.
Both Riegel and Moody said Faison executives have told the mayor that other retailers, including discount supermarket chain Aldi, have recently expressed interest in anchoring the site. Aldi recently opened its first area store in Mount Pleasant.
Riegel said he doesn't think residents would want another grocery store there, since there's already a Bi-Lo and a Publix nearby.
Moody, however, thinks the developer should be able to decide that, not the city.
Councilman Peter Shahid, who represents that area and is the chairman of the West Ashley Revitalization Commission, said he thinks residents in his district would prefer the city's purchase the property rather than waiting to see what Faison would develop there.
"Are there other commercial uses for this property that may fit? Maybe. But ... we're looking for something at a higher level than that," he said. "It is a gateway piece of property, and the development of the property will speak volumes to how the West Ashley revitalization takes off."