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The vacant land between the streets Meeting, Lee, Cooper and East Bay on the East Side where the old Cooper River Bridge once was will likely remain that way for the next few years. The latest plans for its redevelopment fell through last year, and the city is still sorting out what to do next. Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

With development booming throughout the upper peninsula, the large swath of vacant land along Meeting Street on Charleston's East Side seems like an untapped opportunity.

In fact, the city of Charleston has been trying to redevelop it for more than a decade, but unforeseen challenges lurking beneath the surface of the large, grassy blocks have thwarted multiple attempts to realize its potential.

The most recent plan set forth about a year ago fell through, sending the effort back to the drawing board once again.

This time, the city is partnering with experts from the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative to sort out the challenges that have held up the project for so long.

Bridging a divide

The area between Meeting, Lee, Cooper and East Bay streets hasn't always been a blank canvas. There was a time when it was seamlessly integrated in the historically black East Side neighborhood, where families lived in single homes and duplexes.

The neighborhood began to change in the 1920s, when work began on the Grace Memorial Bridge, the first span over the Cooper River. More were forced out in the 1960s to make way for new ramps and a second Cooper River Bridge, which divided the neighborhood for decades to come.

The remnants of both bridges were removed shortly after the new Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge opened in 2005, and the S.C. Department of Transportation eventually gave most of the land back to the city of Charleston.

Ever since, city leaders have promised to redevelop it in an urban fashion that would "re-knit" the community, primarily with affordable housing. It was dubbed the Cooper River Bridge Redevelopment Area, and a special tax district was established to help generate money for new parks and other infrastructure improvements. 

But the effort has been dealt a variety of setbacks over the years due to the Great Recession, and a long, complicated process to divvy up the properties.

The city finally seemed to have a solid development plan in place about a year ago. City Council bonded $12 million from the TIF to get started on the infrastructure pieces.

It also selected a contractor, The Michaels Organization of Atlanta, in May 2017 to build a mix of apartment-style housing with affordable and market-rate units, commercial spaces and a new linear park on three blocks between Nassau and America streets. 

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Change for the area where the old Cooper River bridges once touched down stalled, but the city intends to unveil a new plan to the Community Development Committee soon. Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

But the developer backed out of the deal late last year, citing complicating factors about the site that made it difficult for the model to work financially, according to City Planner Jacob Lindsey.

For one thing, the developer assumed responsibility for handling drainage on the property, which is in a low-lying area prone to flooding. Dealing with those requirements already would be expensive, but it's even more challenging to make the numbers work with a project that aims to include 50 percent affordable housing.

The contract also required a soil cleanup and management plan because of the land's previous use as a roadway.

Lindsey said the developer also wanted to build taller structures than what current height limits in the area would allow.

Dealing with those issues would likely challenge any another developer, so the city sought outside help to rethink its next steps. Charleston was among 10 cities selected last year for the City Leadership Initiative, which allows government officials to workshop unique local challenges with experts from Harvard University.

Lindsey said the added resources are helping the city restructure the plan and coordinate different departments' responsibilities. 

"We are taking a step back and looking at the whole site to make sure that we really thoroughly understand all the issues that surround it," he said. "We want to make sure we can succeed next time, and that it can be done properly."

'We're all frustrated'

It's unclear how much the redevelopment will be delayed. The city has only begun meeting with neighborhood leaders and nonprofit housing groups, one of the first steps in the process.

"We’re not anywhere near actually creating the parameters of the development, but, with that said, we want to get there soon," Lindsey said.

Latonya Gamble, president of the East Side Community Development Corp., attended the first meeting with the city in June.

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This site on the East Side where the Cooper River Bridge once touched down has been vacant for more than a decade, and will likely remain that way for the next few years. The latest plans for its redevelopment fell through last year, and the city is still sorting out what to do next.Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

She said she thinks residents understand it's a complicated development, but the long delays have been discouraging.

"We’re all frustrated. I think the East Side has been patient for too long," she said. "We understand … but it just seems like we’re always put on the back burner. That may not be true, but that's how it feels to us."

She said residents have a sense of urgency about the project because it would bring desperately needed affordable housing to the area. The peninsula's housing prices are outpacing what most residents in the working class neighborhood earn

She said many long-time residents work in the hospitality industry downtown, but high housing prices are pushing some off of the peninsula and, ultimately, into less lucrative jobs.

"The farther out you go, there is employment, but not as much for as many people that are being displaced," Gamble said. 

She said she hopes whoever develops the area understands the community's unique needs. 

"I would like to see a diverse community with all income levels living together. I would like to see not such a food desert," she said.

The fight continues

City Councilman Robert Mitchell, who represents the East Side, said the city's affordable housing goals aren't changing. 

"That’s one of the big needs we have in this community. People can’t afford to stay here," he said. "That's what I'm going to be fighting for."

There is some progress on that front. The Charleston Housing Authority will break ground Thursday on a new housing complex, Grace Homes, within the redevelopment area on Nassau Street.

The 62-unit complex will include 34 rental units for very low-income people, 22 two-bedroom apartments for people earning no more than 80 percent of the area’s median income, and six three-bedroom units to be sold to people earning up to 120 percent of the area’s median income through the city of Charleston’s Homeownership Initiative.

Meanwhile, the East Side Community Development Corp. will hold a community meeting to discuss the challenges facing the neighborhood at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the St. Julian Devine Community Center, 1 Cooper St. 

Some time after that, the city and its new consultants are expected to come up with a new plan as far as how the city's grassy blocks ultimately can help tackle those challenges.

Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.

Abigail Darlington is a local government reporter focusing primarily on the City of Charleston. She previously covered local arts & entertainment, technology, innovation, tourism and retail for the Post and Courier.