Rivers and McMillan avenues, not far from the former Naval Base in North Charleston, was a thriving commercial hub decades ago, but in recent years the city and Charleston County have struggled to revive the area.
Now, as Charleston County finalizes a plan for the former Charleston Naval Hospital — the 23-acre site of a failed redevelopment effort that cost the county more than $33 million — the county, city and Coastal Conservation League are chipping in to fund a planning effort for the broader area.
The county's most detailed plan yet for the site of the vacant hospital building, made public Thursday night at a County Council meeting, basically calls for tearing down everything on the property and starting fresh.
The $47 million plan for the property calls for demolishing both the former hospital, which is North Charleston's tallest building, and a three-story former barracks building at Spruill and McMillan avenues.
Next, the county plans to build new offices for social service agencies on Rivers Avenue, work with the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority to create a new $5 million hub for bus service on McMillan Avenue and explore private development of the remaining 13 acres.
The property is in an Opportunity Zone, with tax advantages for developers, and the county hopes that robust private development will fill in the property over time.
Charleston County ended up with the property after a private redevelopment of the former hospital building failed, sending its future into bankruptcy and litigation. The county was supposed to be the main tenant and ended up owning the property after paying $33 million to settle a lawsuit.
The county determined it could cost another $66 million to complete renovations and decided to tear the building down. Selling some of the land for development would help offset some of the cost, which between the lawsuit and the planned county building add up to more than $80 million.
“This is one of the most masterful plans I’ve seen since my sitting here on council,” said Councilman Henry Darby.
Councilman Dickie Schweers said the plan looks great but worried that private developers might not be interested in fulfilling the county's vision for the property.
“How do we go through a great plan, to something actually getting built and getting done?" he said. "I don’t want us to be the ones to do it."
Right across Rivers Avenue, most of the 18-acre former Shipwatch Square shopping center was sold off by North Charleston in 2017 for less than $3 million. The city still owns 2 acres and is continuing a multi-year effort to attract a grocery store to the struggling area.
“From my conversations with developers, everyone is waiting to see what the county does before spending money along that (Rivers Avenue) corridor," said Adam McConnell, North Charleston's project manager.
Rivers Avenue is now seen as an important "corridor" because that's where the area's first planned bus rapid transit line will be as it runs from Charleston to Summerville. The transit line, where buses would have their own traffic lanes for most of the route, could spur redevelopment, supporters say.
The city and county, along with Coastal Conservation League, plan to bring the Urban Land Institute in for a weeklong planning exercise that will look at the broader area from Spruill Avenue to Meeting Street Road and from Cosgrove Avenue to the former Kmart shopping center north of McMillan Avenue.
“It will give us a chance to bring in experts from outside the area who aren’t politically, professionally or emotionally attached to the property," McConnell said.
The county and city are each contributing $50,000, and the Coastal Conservation League will pay $25,000.
Jason Crowley, program director for the nonprofit group, said the bus rapid transit system is important to the planning effort which he hopes could help “to make the BRT a success and also get the community engaged, to voice their desires and concerns."
This won't be the first time a broad plan for the area in and around Rivers and McMillan avenues has been developed. The Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments sponsored one that was completed in 2011.
Crowley said this new planning effort will be different.
“The ultimate result can actually be a plan that has clear goals, like the West Ashley Master Plan," he said. “The idea is not to put together a design vision that just gets put on a shelf."
That study will come in addition to an $880,000 federally funded study of the bus rapid transit route, and plans for development and redevelopment along its 23-mile path. The BCDCOG is leading that study.
Caitlin Byrd contributed to this report.