Charleston County Council has given up the idea of renovating the former Charleston Naval Hospital and moving public services there, ending a failed six-year redevelopment plan that's cost taxpayers more than $35 million.
The decision Thursday evening sets the stage for likely demolition of the 10-story building at Rivers and McMillan avenues — the tallest building in North Charleston — and construction of a new county building on that property. The council rejected the idea of completing renovations of the 400,000-square-foot building at an estimated cost of $66 million.
"That would be crazy," said Councilman Herb Sass, a real estate appraiser, after the meeting.
The saga of the Charleston Naval Hospital redevelopment began in 2012, when the federal government decided to sell the 175-bed hospital that once served the Navy base. The city of North Charleston bought the property for $2 million, then negotiated a redevelopment deal with a group of developers that included Donald Trump Jr., President Trump's eldest son.
The developers, known as Chicora Gardens, bought the property from North Charleston for $5 million and in 2014 agreed to renovate three floors of the building and lease the space to the county for 25 years — a deal with an anchor tenant that was crucial to the developers' financing. But the renovation work dragged on, contractors sued over unpaid bills, and the county backed out of the agreement in 2016.
That prompted the developers' main lender to foreclose, the Chicora group declared bankruptcy and sued the county, and Charleston County ended up settling the lawsuit, and taking title to the property, for $33 million last year. Several million has since been spent on maintenance and consultants, according to Council Chairman Vic Rawl.
While council voted 7-1 Thursday to have the county staff prepare options for the property that include demolition and construction, it's not a foregone conclusion that the hospital building will be torn down. The county has been seeking proposals for the property and will be accepting them until Sept. 7.
The site is large enough that the county could potentially sell the hospital building and still have enough land to construct new county offices on the property. The site includes a 900-space parking lot, long-unused tennis and basketball courts, and a 71-room former military barracks.
Councilman Teddie Pryor, who made the motion, said he expects that either the hospital or the barracks building will be demolished. Pryor, a North Charleston employee tasked with improving the south end of the city where the hospital property is located, has long advocated putting county services there to help the community.
Councilman Dickie Schweers said it didn't make sense to attempt a costly renovation of a building with far more space than the county needs. A new county building on that property could be up to 150,000 square feet, and no cost estimate has been made public.
In fact, little about the County Council's decision Thursday was made public. Council members and consultants from 11 different companies met for two hours in private before the council reconvened and, without discussion or explanation, approved Pryor's "demolition and construction" motion.
Councilman Joe Qualey cast the lone "no" vote, and Henry Darby was absent.
Rawl said more details about what went into the council's decision will be made public "as soon as we're able to give the full story."
He said council members needed to meet with consultants behind closed doors because sensitive pricing and contractual details were being discussed, at a time when the county is still soliciting offers for the property. The 11 consulting companies have been working for the county for months to develop options and solid information about the condition of the hospital building.
"Right or wrong, nobody can complain that we didn't do our due diligence," Rawl said.