Charleston City Council voted this week to spend $250,000 to help a nonprofit group design, engineer and plan for the proposed Lowcountry Lowline park, which is expected to be built on an old railroad bed that runs along the spine of the peninsula.
That money, however, is just a down payment on what the ambitious project is expected to demand in the coming years.
The Friends of the Lowcountry Lowline, which was set up in 2014 to raise money and public support for the project, plans to use the taxpayer funds to conduct surveys and finalize the designs for the first phase of the park, which will be located just north of Line Street.
Tom Bradford, acting chairman for the Friends of the Lowline, said part of the $250,000 could also be used on community outreach to help the nonprofit and the city understand what nearby communities want out of the proposed park.
The linear park, which is expected to cover 1.7 miles as it cuts under the overpasses for Interstate 26, has been a priority in Charleston for years. The city and the Friends of the Lowline joined together in 2017 to buy the property under the old railroad spur for $4.6 million.
The money needed for construction, however, has yet to materialize. Bradford hopes the funding the city approved this week will get the ball rolling and give the project more momentum.
"We are really elated," Bradford said. "We are grateful to all of our supporters on City Council."
The vote April 13 was unanimous, but that doesn't mean the Friends of the Lowline should expect additional funding from the city to flow so easily moving forward.
Several council members, led by Keith Waring, who represents part of West Ashley, continued to raise concerns about handing millions of dollars in taxpayer money over to the Friends of the Lowline in order for the nonprofit to develop the park.
This week, Waring questioned why the planning, engineering and procurement for the new park isn't being done in house by city employees. And he advocated for increased transparency if the city sends more money to the Friends of the Lowline in the future.
The nonprofit already indicated that it could seek up to $4 million from the city later this year in order to break ground on the first phase of the park, and presentations by city staff estimated the nonprofit could seek up to $16.6 million, in total, from the city over the life of the project.
Councilman Ross Appel, who represents parts of West Ashley and James Island, agreed that there should be transparency surrounding the public money that is spent on the project.
"We can put all types of transparency measures in place here," Appel said. "There's nothing preventing us from doing that, and I think we should do that as this project moves forward."
The partnership between the city and the nonprofit, Appel said, is good thing. With the Friends of the Lowline involved, it could take some of the workload off of the city's parks department, he said.
"We need to get excited about the Lowline and start putting our money where our mouth is," Appel said. "This $250,000 is a drop in the bucket, but it is going to signal to the community, to the market, that the city is serious about this."
The council members' apprehensions over transparency could be relieved once the Friends of the Lowline finalizes a new legal agreement with the city. The nonprofit is negotiating the terms of a contract, which will dictate what type of information the group needs to provide to the city during construction of the park.
The Friends of the Lowline, Bradford said, also intends to solicit private donations to help build out the park and add amenities to project.
Mayor John Tecklenburg, who has advocated for the Lowline since he took office in 2016, emphasized the millions of dollars in private capital the Friends of the Lowline already contributed when they helped to purchase the property for the park.
"We wouldn't even be here but for the Friends of the Lowline," Tecklenburg said.