Nearly two years ago, a local nonprofit and the city of Charleston purchased 1½ miles of railroad right of way that runs from Mount Pleasant Street to Woolfe Street in the middle of downtown, and they dubbed it the Lowcountry LowLine.
It was billed as a new walking path through the central spine of the city.
Since then, however, little has changed.
Some spots around Mount Pleasant Street are currently being tested for environmental contaminants, and city leaders expect some of the property will need cleanup work before construction on the new linear park can begin.
City spokesman Jack O'Toole said S&ME Inc. is expected to provide test results by mid 2020.
Despite the slow start, hopes remain high about the project's promise.
"The connectivity that it will provide will be pretty amazing up and down the spine of our peninsula and its connections to the east and west long term," Mayor John Tecklenburg said. "I think it will be more urban below Line Street and a little more natural north of it. It'll include little places for pocket parks and even a substantial sized-park space north of Line."
The purchase was finalized in December 2017, with $4.84 million spent by the city. The parcel included some larger undeveloped properties behind F and H streets on the West Side. They could be used to build 50 to 60 new affordable housing units.
The city recently selected The Michaels Organization of New Jersey as the developer for the affordable housing, which will be designed by Charleston-based architects LS3P Associates. The city is working with the state on parking requirements there and it plans to seek Low- Income Housing Tax Credits in March, City Planning Director Jacob Lindsey said.
Tecklenburg said the project will take into account flooding issues specific to the King and Huger street area, a problematic, low-lying intersection.
The Friends of the Lowcountry Lowline, formed in 2014, started the push to reuse the railroad line that no longer was being used. They took their inspiration from the success of New York's Highline, the elevated former railroad bed on Manhattan's lower west side. The Charleston group included individuals, preservation groups, park advocates, philanthropists, neighborhood residents and others interested in transforming the area under Interstate 26.
The group contributed to the purchase of the property, too.
City Council wants the LowLine to incorporate drainage and make sure safety is improved, especially lighting.
Tecklenburg thinks the park will "take on different characteristics, but altogether, I view it as being transformational."
"It's important for everyone to know the Low Line is really a major infrastructure project involving transportation, stormwater infrastructure and parking because there will be areas of parking underneath the bridges and around the Low Line," Lindsey said. "It's not just a park project, it's really a major infrastructure and housing project."
City Council has set aside $98,000 for initial design work, Lindsey said, and the next step is working with residents to determine how it might function.
'More urban' than the Greenway
Tom Bradford, treasurer of the Friends of the Lowcountry Lowline nonprofit, called the purchase two years ago a "long slog" with "a lot of hand-wringing."
While the city has a history of repurposing former railroad beds as trails, notably the West Ashley Bikeway and Greenway, Bradford said the LowLine will be more urban.
This summer, the group assembled an "inventory of problems and promises," but Bradford declined to share those before they're shown to Tecklenburg, City Council and the neighborhoods along the route. The group is also working to raise money to pay off a $1 million bank loan it received to contribute to the purchase.
"It's really good work and we're proud of it, we're anxious to share with city officials and the neighborhoods," Bradford said of the inventory. "It is a thing meant to serve the community, and without community input we are unable to describe it. ... We're all just waiting for the new council to take its seats and to get to the next phase and get the conversation going with the city."
In a video on the LowLine's website, one member discusses the history of the area and plans moving forward.
The video includes a few mock-up images of three areas of the LowLine parcel calling them "imaginings" to give a sense of what the spaces could look like and to jump-start design discussions.
Between Line and Columbus streets one rendering shows a walking path and a bike-dedicated path, while another image shows a single lane path with concession stands and a seating area.
North of Huger Street with Interstate 26 on the right, a rendering shows a separate walking path and a bike-dedicated lane. Looking south toward Line Street one image shows a circular path with green space in the middle, a covered pavilion or stage on one side.
Loquita Bryant-Jenkins, president of the North Central Neighborhood Association, said she hasn't heard any updates about the project for some time.
"Our concerns remain the same — we want better lighting and an easy flow from one point to the next point," Bryant-Jenkins said. "The area is changing, people are moving more on electric scooters and golf carts, so hopefully it provides a pathway for them to travel."
Marion Hawkins, president of the Cannonborough-Elliotborough Neighborhood Association said the LowLine will make the city more urban and livable.
"It's only going to enhance the downtown and unify several neighborhoods," she said.