It’s hard to believe the county has to pay someone $6 million to demolish the old Navy hospital.
You’d think County Council would take sledgehammers to it themselves, as much trouble as that building has caused.
And is still causing.
This week, council voted to raze the Charleston Naval Hospital at Rivers and McMillan avenues in North Charleston — a 10-story, 400,000-square-foot building the county has bought twice now. And which also has an asbestos problem.
But even the demolition is subject to change because no one can agree what to do with the 23-acre site. Some council members want to relocate state and county services to the property, including inpatient drug abuse treatment. Others envision affordable housing or high-rise apartment buildings. And some suggest a private developer should bring in shops, restaurants and offices.
All of those proposals have merits — and inherent problems. Which is why there’s so much disagreement on County Council. There is no easy answer.
The county sold the Naval Hospital to developers years ago, with the agreement it would lease part of the building for government services. But the renovations were slow and shoddy, and the county didn’t listen to early warnings and back out of the lease quick enough. A lawsuit and a $33 million bankruptcy court settlement later, the county once again has this albatross hanging around its neck.
This situation passed ridiculous years ago and now defies explanation. The Naval Hospital sits on a huge piece of property in the center of Charleston County, where most real estate is worth its weight in gold. Except, apparently, the southern end of North Charleston, which can’t even attract a grocery store.
The county, North Charleston and the Coastal Conservation League have hired the Urban Land Institute to study the southern part of the city and propose ideas for rehabbing it. Many council members want to wait until they get that report in April to do anything — including taking down the hospital.
After all, why spend $53 million on demolition and a new three-story building, when $66 million would renovate the much-larger hospital?
But Councilman Henry Darby, who represents the southern end of North Charleston, worries that he knows where this is headed. The pending study, he predicts, will be little more than a road map to gentrification.
“When it’s a prime location, the wants of the haves always win over the needs of the have-nots,” he says. “Look at Charleston, Daniel Island and Cainhoy.”
That’s a most reasonable concern.
Darby says the county committed to relocating services for the poor and disadvantaged at the old Naval Hospital, and that decision should stick. He believes such offices will help revitalize the area — a DHEC office that distributes hundreds of thousands of dollars in WIC vouchers should attract a grocery store, he says.
He and Councilman Teddie Pryor say they have no problem with developing part of the parcel for housing, so long as the homes are priced for teachers, police officers and firefighters, and not “$1,600 to $1,800 a month for rent.”
That is the one point where most of council agrees.
Chairman Elliott Summey doesn’t believe a single county services building will revitalize the neighborhood — the state Department of Social Services and a library are already nearby — but the CARTA bus rapid transit station planned for the site should attract workforce housing.
“In every other city, when they bring in BRT, the whole area flourishes,” he says.
It should be exactly that simple. That hospital property is minutes from downtown Charleston, Park Circle and Tanger Outlet Mall. People should be clamoring to get in there, if for no other reason than to avoid traffic.
The trick is revitalizing the area without running out the current residents. Summey says the Urban Land Institute plans four days of community meetings to get their suggestions, and he thinks all decisions should be put on hold until council hears the results.
“We all have opinions. I’d like to hear what the residents think,” he says.
Good idea. Those folks have waited a long time for something — anything — to improve their community, and this hospital fiasco hasn’t helped.
It’s so frustrating they might even provide the sledgehammers.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.