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Potential millions spent on Charleston park could limit East Side stormwater fixes

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Lowcountry Lowline Park

Many of Charleston's elected leaders are prepared to spend several million dollars to help finance the Lowcountry Lowline park, which would be located on an abandoned railroad bed that runs down the spine of the peninsula. Brad Nettles/Staff

Charleston City Council needs to decide how to spend millions of dollars in funding from a special tax district dedicated to the East Side of the peninsula, as the area continues to grow and develop rapidly.

The city's elected leaders considered spending up to $4 million of those funds this year on the proposed Lowcountry Lowline park, which would be built on an abandoned railroad bed that runs along the spine of the peninsula.

But at least one council member is concerned that allocating that much money for the park will 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.  

City Council repeatedly discussed what the top priorities should be for that special tax revenue over the past two months.

Nearly every member of the elected body has voiced support for the idea behind the park, which the city plans to develop in conjunction with a nonprofit group known as the Friends of the Lowcountry Lowline. But the question City Council is wrestling with is whether that project should take precedence over the city's other needs on the East Side.

The debate has been framed by some council members as a choice between prioritizing the city's existing residents or investing in the 1.7-mile park to attract new development and tax revenue to the area. 

In several meetings, Councilman Keith Waring questioned why the park was slated to receive more funding than stormwater improvements and affordable-housing initiatives, which the tax district was initially created to fund. He suggested the park was "leapfrogging" other projects.

Waring, who represents part of West Ashley, also took issue with the advocacy effort on behalf of the park. Residents on the East Side of Charleston, some of whom live in public housing, don't have the pull that the Friends of the Lowline does, Waring said.

High Tide Flooding (copy) (copy) (copy) (copy)

Charleston City Council is debating how to use funding from a special tax district on the East Side of the peninsula. Some council members want to use millions of dollars to fund the Lowcountry Lowline park, but at least one councilman said stormwater projects in the area should be prioritized. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

“The people walking around in the floods down there, up to their shins in water, don’t have the same lobbying effort,” he said. "They don’t have the campaign. They don’t have the influence of Friends of the Lowline. It depends on a handful of people on this council. We represent their voice."

Mayor John Tecklenburg, who vowed to complete the Lowline park in his first State of the City address in 2016, suggested there is enough money available in the special tax district to pay for the park and upgrade stormwater lines on the East Side.

The city expects to have around $11.7 million to spend in the area this year. Some of that money was tentatively slated to go to sidewalk improvements, parking upgrades and the historic 135-foot-tall smokestacks on the East Side.

The stormwater improvements were projected to net roughly $1 million, while the Lowline cashed in on the largest piece of the pie. 

Councilman Robert Mitchell, who represents East Side residents, said he wants to see the Lowline developed so it can be used by his constituents to travel up and down the peninsula. But he also wants the people who struggle with flooding near Aiken and America streets to know they are being prioritized by the city.

“I don’t want to go back to my district and have them say this tax revenue is not being used for what it’s supposed to," Mitchell said.

An 'economic engine'

The Lowline has been an aspiration in Charleston for more than half a decade at this point.

The Friends of the Lowcountry Lowline was formed in 2014 to raise money and public support for the park, and the city partnered with the nonprofit in 2017 to jointly purchase the property under the old railroad line for $4.6 million.

Evening Post Industries, parent company of The Post and Courier, contributed $500,000 to help the Friends of the Lowcountry Lowline buy the land. An official with Evening Post Industries also sits on the nonprofit's board of directors.

Since the land deal with the city was completed, the railroad ties were pulled and Friends of the Lowline created renderings of how the park one day may appear.

lowline.bike2.JPG

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

The corridor doesn't look like much right now. It's a weed-covered path that's often lined with litter. But the vision for the park is grand. It includes dedicated bike and pedestrian paths, a covered pavilion, and places to eat, drink and shop. 

The government funding needed to kickstart the ambitious construction project, however, has yet to materialize. That's why the city is considering dipping into the revenue from the special tax district on the East Side this year.

Many City Council members argue the Lowline park is the perfect project to spend that money on. They see the park as an investment that will spur new development projects on the East Side and generate additional revenue in the tax district, which is commonly referred to as a TIF.

The only way the tax district makes money is if land in that area is developed and property assessments increase. The city nets any growth in the tax base instead of the new money being spread out to local schools or the county.

Councilman Ross Appel, who represents parts of West Ashley and James Island, doesn't see the current spending debate as a choice between the new park or stormwater improvements. Funding the Lowline this year, he said, could generate even more money in the tax district that can be used on stormwater projects and affordable housing over the next decade.

“The Lowline can be the catalyst that can help this district really take off. It can be the rocket fuel,” Appel said during a meeting in February.

Other council members, including Carol Jackson and Jason Sakran, had similar words to describe the potential of the Lowline. They called the park "transformational," an "economic engine” and an "exponential opportunity.”

Lowcountry Lowline Park

The Friends of the Lowcountry Lowline, a nonprofit, is prepared to raise private funds for the linear park, a portion of which would run under the overpasses for Interstate 26. Brad Nettles/Staff

The tax district is already growing on its own, which is why the city has money to spend this year. The Charleston peninsula, overall, remains a popular real estate market.

Still, property owners and new developments near the Lowline are beginning to market their proximity to the proposed park, which would run under the overpasses for Interstate 26.

The Friends of the Lowline is working with the city to develop an "equity plan" to make sure the park works for all of the communities along the proposed route and doesn't lead to more gentrification on the peninsula. The nonprofit also expects to incorporate stormwater management into the park's designs, including rain gardens and retention ponds along the path.

The $4 million the city is considering for the Lowline this year is only a down payment, however. That money is expected to help cover the first phase of the park, which would run from roughly Line Street to Huger Street.

The city estimated it could cost up to $16.6 million, in total, to develop the entire length of the Lowline, which would cover as far north as Mount Pleasant Street at the neck of the peninsula.

Tom Bradford, chairman of Friends of the Lowline, said the group expects to raise private funds to help with the construction of the park and add other amenities. But those donations are unlikely to come in until the city commits some taxpayer money to the effort, he said. 

Still, Bradford recognized the city has other infrastructure projects on its wish list that also need to be addressed.

"We're realists," he said. "We know we need to work with the city, which has other priorities. We're happy to be in those discussions and be good citizens."

'Serious dollars'

In recent years, Charleston's elected leaders issued bonds, applied for grants and dedicated huge segments of the city's budget to better protect homes and businesses from rising sea levels and more powerful rainstorms.

The results from that spending can be seen in the work taking place on the Low Battery seawall and the large drainage tunnel being installed under the Septima P. Clark Parkway downtown.

But with so much money being poured into those keystone projects, there isn't always as much funding available for stormwater improvements in other sections of the city.

That's the primary concern Waring has with shifting so much money to the Lowline park. The money from the special tax district, he said, could enable the city to undertake the necessary stormwater upgrades on the East Side without those projects competing with flood-prevention measures in other parts of Charleston.

Flooding Rain (copy)

The city of Charleston is conducting surveys of its stormwater lines on the East Side of the peninsula to determine what improvements would prevent streets and homes from flooding in the area. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

That means more money from the city's primary stormwater fund could be freed up for frequently flooded areas on James Island, Johns Island and in Waring's district in West Ashley.

“We have limited drainage funds that can be spent all over the city,” Waring told The Post and Courier. "I support the Lowline, as well, but we have some drainage issues in the East Side that are going to demand some serious dollars."

Waring, whose father previously served on the council, said the city in past decades often prioritized parks, streetscaping and beautification projects over the stormwater pipes that run under everyone’s feet. He doesn't want to see that mistake repeated this time around. 

Matthew Fountain, Charleston's stormwater director, said city crews recently cleaned the pipes in the two drainage basins that make up the East Side of the peninsula.

The city also hired a company to conduct surveys and produce a model that would identify what drainage improvements would help prevent streets and homes from going underwater during storms.

The results of that modeling, which is set to be completed later this year, should give the city a better understanding of how much it will cost to undertake those projects.

In the meantime, the city's staff estimated the stormwater improvements in those areas could require up to $15 million over the next decade. 

The only project that might demand more money out of the East Side tax district is the Lowline, though other funding sources are also being explored. 

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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