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Charleston's Lowline park project could see $25M in federal funding

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Lowcountry Lowline Park (copy)

A pedestrian makes his way down Spring Street on March 24, 2021, as he crosses the future Lowcountry Lowline park. On  June 30, 2021, Charleston City Council unanimously approved submitting an application for a $25 million federal grant to help fund the project. File/Brad Nettles/Staff 

Charleston’s proposed Lowcountry Lowline park is already beginning to transform the spine of the peninsula, attracting development and offering the promise of a more connected city.

To realize the linear park's full potential, city officials are lobbying for a $25 million boost from the federal government. Landing that much money would relieve lingering concerns over how to pay for the popular project. 

City Council members voted unanimously June 30 to approve a grant application to the U.S. Department of Transportation and should know by November if the funding is approved. 

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The Friends of the Lowcountry Lowline, a nonprofit, created renderings of what the park may one day look like. The plans include bike lanes, a covered pavilion and places to eat, drink and shop. Friends of the Lowline/Provided

Council members and the mayor said they're eager to give the Lowline momentum.  

"We've all agreed that a transformational change of the Lowline would be a great thing for our city long term," said Mayor John Tecklenburg. "How we're going to pay for it has always been the question."

The city could get $5 million in federal funding, with a $25 million cap, for every $1 million of local money raised, according to a letter sent to the mayor by Tom Bradford, board chairman of Friends of the Lowline, a nonprofit that's partnered with the city on the project. Fully funded, the grant and local match would net $30 million toward the project. 

Bradford promised to work with the city on raising local money to meet the federal government's mandated match. 

The project has seen significant support since the city and nonprofit partnered in 2017 to buy about 1½ miles of unused railroad track and adjacent land from Virginia-based transportation company Norfolk Southern Corp. for $4.84 million.

But the Lowline hasn't been without some controversy.

Earlier this year, several council members, led by Keith Waring, who represents part of West Ashley, raised concerns over the nonprofit's role in the project and a perceived lack of transparency.

The council voted unanimously April 13 to give $250,000 in city money to help the group design, engineer and plan for the proposed park.

At the time, Waring questioned why the planning, engineering and procurement for the Lowline wasn't being done by city employees. He advocated for increased transparency if the city sends more money to The Friends of the Lowline in the future.

About a month earlier, the councilman also said he worried using city money on the park would limit or delay spending on stormwater fixes in lower-income communities on the East Side, where floodwaters can swamp cars and creep up to people’s doorsteps.

Waring brought up similar concerns at the June 30 meeting, saying he was in support of submitting the application as long as the mayor could ensure the city would oversee the project and eventual bidding process. 

"We will manage the project," Tecklenburg said. "That’s a yes."

Councilman Ross Appel said the Lowline project is already bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment into the Charleston peninsula.

"We get a $25 million grant from the federal government ... you will see the development along the Lowline skyrocket, which will in turn cause the (tax increment financing) to skyrocket, which will mean we'll have more money for affordable housing, more money for stormwater projects, freeing up money for West Ashley," Appel said. "Very excited about this project. Could not support it more." 

The TIF district would use property tax revenue generated by development in the area to fund public projects, such as drainage and road work, on the East Side.

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. Once complete, the Lowline will follow an old railroad bed that runs through the middle of the peninsula. 

In early 2020, members of the Friends of the Lowline met with city officials to lay out their vision. 

Plans included a walking path, bike path, concession stands, seating areas, green space and a pavilion, according to renderings presented to council members in February 2020. 

Further details, including the park's conceptual master plan and a full set of renderings, are available on the Friends of the Lowline website: lowcountrylowline.org.

The project draws inspiration from New York City's High Line park, which developed from one of Manhattan's elevated railroad tracks. 

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A rendering of the proposed look of the Lowcountry Lowline "columns" between King and Meeting streets, in the area of Poplar, Simons, Indian and Riker streets. Friends of the Lowcountry Lowline/Provided

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-323-9175. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

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