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After 25 years, Charleston's shuttered Navy base still has 'a long way to go'

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housing dog walking.jpg

Bella Drake and dog Summer and Kalee Crouse and dog Mocha walk through the historic officers' quarters at the former Charleston Naval Base Monday, Feb. 4, 2019 in North Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The redevelopment of the former Charleston Naval Base and Shipyard has been a success by many measures even as it remains very much a work in progress.

In the 25 years since the federal government decided to shutter the military installation, several dozen government agencies, nonprofits, academic institutions and private companies have moved onto part of the vast 3-mile-long complex by the Cooper River.

And it's an ever-changing mix.

No one is keeping track on employment figures, but at least 4,000 people work there, possibly more than 5,000.

That's fewer than the number of jobs on the base when it was the region's largest employer but still more than all but five of the county's biggest public and private employers.

And for the first time in the quarter century since the Navy left, the base's long-term future is coming into focus.

Robert Ryan, executive director of the Charleston Naval Complex Redevelopment Authority, put it this way: "I think the way forward is fairly set. Things might change a little, but they're not going to change drastically."

It's a story of more than a hundred little stories, but the main chapters include a new shipping container terminal; a series of federal agencies, including the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center; Clemson University's Restoration Institute; a private consortium reusing three drydocks, six piers and about two dozen industrial buildings; an intermodal railyard; a waterfront park that soon could double in size and dovetail into the base's historic residential area; and potential urban infill on the north end that the city of North Charleston has long sought.

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The gatehouse that once stood at the McMillian Avenue entrance on the former Charleston Naval Base Monday is long gone, a sign of greater public access here. Feb. 4, 2019 in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Along the way, the splashiest headlines were written about the epic clashes over ownership and land use.

For instance, a 1995 Associated Press story began like this: "It has all the elements: the rich, the powerful, politics, the media, and now scandal. Great stuff for a pulp novel, but is this any way to redevelop a Navy base?"

"Charleston, the genteel city the Pentagon wanted to use as a national model for how to put a closed Navy base speedily to new uses, has seen that promise sink in a morass of political infighting that has torn apart two redevelopment committees." It also quoted former U.S. Rep. Arthur Ravenel Jr. saying, "A crazy drunk writer if he sat down could not conjure up such an incredible story."

And that was years before all this: the epic political fight over shifting a proposed container port terminal from Daniel Island onto the base; the implosion of the Noisette project, an ambitious plan to convert the base's northern end into a dense urban grid; and the state Department of Commerce's controversial purchase of most Noisette land for an intermodal railyard to serve the future port.

Leatherman Terminal (copy)

An aerial view of the Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal construction site taken in 2017. File/State Ports Authority/Provided

"It's been a changing game, it really has," North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said. "The picture has changed dramatically over the years, especially when they decided to bring the railyard in. ... The biggest kick in the butt was Palmetto Railways."

Lingering questions

In a region known for historic preservation, it's not surprising that most of what's happened is opportunistic rehab and reuse of existing Navy buildings. There's not been much new construction, aside from the 60-unit West Yard Lofts, an affordable apartment complex, and Clemson's Zucker Family Graduate Education Center.

West Yard Lofts

West Yard Lofts, a 60-unit workforce housing complex at the base's northern end, is a relatively rare example of new construction on the former base. Robert Behre/Staff

There are dozens of pieces quietly being reused, from the 125-slip public marina at the base's southern tip to the nonprofit Water Mission's headquarters at the northern end.

Scattered in between are a small brewery, a renovated chapel, a tech incubator, a salvaged Confederate submarine and a furniture warehouse.

It's the northern end of the base that remains a work in progress. The city of North Charleston is finishing a master plan that would: double the size of its Riverfront Park by extending it north of the creek; create a dense node of development just north of the park extension; and create new housing and parking along Noisette Boulevard.

Still, major questions remain, including:

  • How will the Intermodal Yard impact the base's historic hospital district. These buildings at the bases's northwest corner form a National Register Historic District but also have been placed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 11 Most Endangered List.
  • How successful will the city's redevelopment plan be this time? The first attempt, known as the Noisette project, sputtered, but the city is working on a new master plan for the north end and could unveil it later this year.
  • What will become of the Veteran's Terminal? The Charleston Naval Complex Redevelopment Authority is poised to deed the waterfront parcel to the State Ports Authority.
  • Will it eventually be home to a Hunley museum? The Redevelopment Authority is tasked with building a new museum for the Hunley, but it's currently looking into the possibility of locating the historic submarine at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant rather than the base.
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Boards cover windows on the former Charleston Naval Base's historic hospital. Its future is very much in doubt because a new rail line is planned nearby. Monday, Feb. 4, 2019 in North Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

'We've accomplished a lot'

The Charleston Naval Base and Naval Shipyard was one of 122 military installations shuttered in the United States during the past four decades since the Cold War ended.

Few comparisons have been made about their redevelopment, and few experts have studied them.

One of the few is Dr. Michael Touchton, a University of Miami professor and co-author of "Salvaging Community: How American Cities Rebuild Closed Military Bases," due out this summer.

The book doesn't rank the redevelopment success at different bases, but it does review about 130 base closures and point to themes that affected their subsequent redevelopment, including the vibrancy of the metro area around the military base; the extent of contamination on the property; and the involvement of local, state and federal government in the process.

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One success on the former Charleston Naval Base has been the relocation and restoration of its former chapel, the Eternal Father of the Sea. It's now used as a venue for weddings and other special services. Monday, Feb. 4, 2019 in North Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

"There’s no easy answer to say this works and this other thing doesn’t," Touchton said.

While the Charleston Naval Base was not among the book's case studies, it's in the data set. Touchton was at Clemson University and is personally familiar with the base.

By the book's measures, the Charleston base appears to have fared pretty well. State and federal government played a key role. While the base has its polluted spots, including an old landfill on the southern end whose clay cap must be monitored, the pollution has been managed. The surrounding metro area has thrived, too, with Nucor Steel, Boeing, Mercedes-Benz and others moving in, state educational institutions remaining strong and tourism thriving.

Touchton noted that some of its new uses welcome the public, such as the museum where the Confederate submarine Hunley is being restored, as well as the park along the Cooper River. 

"That represents more or less the high end of what communities can hope for, at least on this timeline," he said. "The trajectory looks good. There’s more that needs to be done, of which you’re obviously aware."

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The intersection McMillian Avenue and Noisette Boulevard on the former Charleston Naval Base Monday is one area expected to see more redevelopment and reuse. However, a relative lack of parking looms as an obstacle. Feb. 4, 2019 in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Meanwhile, hopes to replace all the base's lost jobs on the base were never grounded in reality.

"The jobs on former bases never return to the level the military had when they were at peak employment," he said. "There is no case I know of where redevelopment has succeeded in replacing the jobs fully."

He also wasn't surprised to learn the city's Noisette project stumbled and imploded. "These are unwieldy sites for redevelopment in so many senses," he said. "A lot of projects have gone belly up around the country even though the land was free to them. This is easier said than done.”

Touchton said one measure of a successful base redevelopment is how much land its redevelopment authority has deeded away. By that standard, Charleston is a big success. Its Redevelopment Authority soon expects to convey its final parcel, the 100-acre Veteran's Terminal, Ryan said.

Another theme of base redevelopment is simply patience.

"These timelines are really long in terms of what the expected building out is," he said. "You’re looking about a 50-year timetable from closure to the end."

Ronnie Givens, a retired auditor from Dorchester County, has had a front-row seat to the 25-year-long base redevelopment saga, as both a charter member of the current Redevelopment Authority and the one before that. He recalled the clashes, as well as the sad reality of not being able to help displaced base workers. "They wanted to maintain their current jobs, which we couldn't do."

But over time, he said he has seen success arrive in small doses.

"Some good has come out of all this, in fact, a lot of good," he said. "It's like eating an elephant. We were able to eat the elephant in small bites."

One sign that the elephant is being digested is that it's becoming more challenging to accommodate new commuters as buildings come back to life, particularly on the north end. The city's emerging master plan expects to tackle that.

"We've created a parking problem," Givens said.

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Terry Boroff and Patricia Boroff, of Summerville, cycle through Riverfront Park on the former Charleston Naval Base Monday, Feb. 4, 2019 in North Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

If public access on the base continues to expand, then the 50th anniversary of its closure could be cause for a celebration.

"My wife grew up 1½ miles from the shipyard and never went on it until after it closed," Summey said. Today, the city's premier park lies just north of the shipyard, on the base's former golf course along the river, and the park is expected to grow.

"I'm very optimistic about most things in life. The redevelopment could be better than it is," Summey said, "but it could have been a lot worse. We've accomplished a lot. We've still got a long way to go."

Admiral's house

The Admiral's House, also known as Quarters A, is at long last getting a $4.5 million restoration after years of neglect. File/Robert Behre/Staff

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.