NORTH CHARLESTON — The state's billion-dollar highway project will potentially displace hundreds of families and businesses, increase noise levels and take away a neighborhood community center.
But potential mitigations for the I-526 Lowcountry Corridor West Project — which aims to alleviate traffic on Interstates 526 and 26 — also presents new opportunities for residents and aims to lessen the impacts of the road development.
The project's draft community mitigation overview includes efforts to create reasonably-priced homes in and near the impacted neighborhoods, improve pedestrian and bicycle paths, create new recreational spaces, fund college education and provide employment.
Some community members would like to see additions, such as helping weatherize people's houses. But several feel the outline is a solid beginning.
The draft was created by the state Department of Transportation based on input from residents and the Community Advisory Council, formed last year as part of the highway plan. The outline isn't final. A public comment period is underway and lasts until Jan. 15. People can view the mitigations, the project's preferred alternative, and other details online at www.526lowcountrycorridor.com/westph and offer feedback. People can also schedule an appointment at the SCDOT community office at 5627 Rivers Ave. by calling 843-258-1135.
The relief package represents "something in the ballpark of $30 million" of community investment, said Joy Riley, SCDOT project manager.
“This is an opportunity for folks to voice their opinion on how that money is spent," she said. “There could be things that come out of this comment period that are great ideas and make it into the final plan."
Highlights of the draft also include:
- A large, centrally located community center complex and two pocket parks. The center will be overseen by the city of North Charleston, which will operate recreational programs.
- A commitment to biker and pedestrian improvements that include upgraded sidewalks, improved lighting, crosswalks and pedestrian signage and CARTA transit stop improvements.
- A promise to create an infrastructure plan that includes attention to stormwater.
- A school-to-work employment program in the fields of construction, engineering, and transportation.
- $50,000 to fund a scholarship program for high school and college students in the impacted neighborhoods.
- SCDOT summer internships for up to 10 students.
The Lowcountry Corridor West project is the first of two road plans that look to widen I-526 between West Ashley and Mount Pleasant. The "West" project extends 9 miles between Paul Cantrell Boulevard in West Ashley to Virginia Avenue in North Charleston. It also involves redesigning the interchange at Interstates 26 and 526, a regular point of gridlock.
Four North Charleston neighborhoods will bear the brunt of the impact: Highland Terrace, Russelldale, Ferndale and Liberty Park. Ninety-one families in the predominately low-wealth neighborhoods could be displaced, Riley said.
Partnering with the state Housing Finance and Development Authority, SCDOT plans to create 100 affordable, multifamily rental housing units within the vicinity of the impacted communities for those displaced by the highway initiative.
Additionally, the state plans to acquire lots to offer single-family or multifamily houses. So far, SCDOT has acquired 12 properties and plans to get more, Riley said. These units would be available for both displaced homeowners and impacted tenants who desire to move into homeownership, said Riley, who noted the department encourages people to buy houses.
To help people with the transition, SCDOT has already begun hosting financial literacy and homebuying workshops. The state's replacement housing payment program also offers money to help people obtain housing, she said.
In the past, SCDOT has set aside money for housing. But this is the first time the department is looking to create it as part of a mitigation package, Riley said.
“In this case, we’re actually doing some tangible things that we control that we’re going to do prior to the right of way," she said. "I'm real excited about that. It’s the first time that DOT has done it, which puts some pressure on us.”
Among things that didn't make it into the draft are sound barriers and weatherization measures. But there's still time for the community to request such proposals be included.
Cynthia Anderson lives in West Ashley but was raised in Liberty Park and owns property there. Her mom is also a resident and could be forced to move.
A member of the advisory council, Anderson thinks the draft is a good start. She would like to see measures included to help people weatherize their homes by installing solar panels and improving insulation.
She feels state officials have done well in trying to spread the word about the project, but she would like to see more communication with residents. She understands the dangers of COVID-19, but thinks those developing the project could knock on doors while wearing masks to help spread the word to those in the community.
"There’s still a lot of people who don’t know what’s going on," she said.
Tony Grasso, a community advisory representative from Russelldale, is glad to see housing as a main focus of the mitigation. He especially feels that those who've paid off their homes should not be displaced and burdened with a mortgage.