Several years ago, Henrietta Woodward spoke at a funeral of a childhood friend from Union Heights and said that old friends should find another way to get together.

Her off-hand comment launched a Union Heights reunion, now held every other year, where between 400 and 500 current and former residents show up.

The event demonstrates the strength of the ties that bind people to this small neighborhood of predominantly black residents in the Neck Area at the southernmost tip of North Charleston, even those who moved away decades ago.

"Once part of Union Heights, always part of Union Heights," Woodward said.

Now, community activists and residents are working to improve this neighborhood of small homes on small lots, while keeping it affordable in a hot real estate market. And they are keeping a wary eye on a developer that already has purchased 30 properties here and may buy up to 70 more.

A developer calls 'every day'

Woodward is working with Skip Mikell, president of the Union Heights Community Council and others to form a land trust, which is a new tool to create and maintain affordable housing in gentrifying areas that is becoming increasingly popular.

Under the plan, the trust would purchase and own the land, then lease it to people who build homes on it. The buyer owns the house, but not the land. The city of Charleston also is forming a similar land trust and hopes to have it operating by this summer, spokesman Jack O'Toole said.

Mikell said although it may not be visible yet, Union Heights is in the path of gentrification. It's halfway between peninsular Charleston and the increasingly popular Park Circle neighborhood. One of Union Heights' long-time restaurants, Bertha's Kitchen on Meeting Street Road, won national recognition last month by being named an America's Classic restaurant by the James Beard Foundation.

"Someone gets a call from a developer every day," asking them if they want to sell their home, Mikell said.

People used to live in North Charleston because it was less expensive, but areas north and south of Union Heights are getting progressively more costly. "There's no North Charleston for us to move into," he said. "We're in a war for our existence."

Mikell said his group has applied for nonprofit status for what will be called the Community First Land Trust, and it starts with money on hand.

The trust will purchase land with a portion of the $3 million Palmetto Railways gave the community to mitigate the impacts of its new rail yard on the former Navy base, as well as $4 million in mitigation money that the State Ports Authority gave the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities to compensate for the impacts of a new port terminal that will open in 2019.

Mikell said the group could begin purchasing property under the auspices of the Lowcountry Alliance even before the trust gets its nonprofit status. It plans to begin by purchasing properties on Echo, Forest and Groveland avenues, between Davis Avenue and Meeting Street Road.

"It's called developing a model block," Mikell said.

He originally hoped to create this model block along Arbutus, Beech and Comstock avenues, but developer Luxury Simplified already jumped in and bought several properties there, he said. 

That was a surprise, Woodward said, because the company had approached the community council about helping it find residents interested in selling their property. They said they wanted to create a "community benefits agreement," she said.

The parties held a series of meetings and proceeded to move forward with its plans before an agreement was developed, she said. 

Luxury Simplified

Chris Leigh-Jones, CEO of Luxury Simplified, said, "We aren't going to dig any ground until we finalize with the neighborhood."

His plan is to build two-bedroom "Beaufort-style cottages" there that would be between 800 square feet and 1,000 square feet in size. The $150,000 to $200,000 homes would have big front porches to keep the neighborhood feeling, he said.

It's a great location because it's outside of a flood zone and less than five miles from Calhoun Street, he said, adding that he doesn't know when building will begin. 

The current rent for most homes in Union Heights is about $500 month, he said, an indicator that "it just doesn't justify the build price at the moment."

Leigh-Jones said he can understand residents' concern, but he envisions a community of people with varying incomes. He said it would be a good idea for about 25 percent of the homes in Union Heights to be built or managed by community organizations. 

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said the city has discussed selling 15 city properties in Union Heights to Luxury Simplified. He said the company could encourage young people to move back to that community. Summey also has met with Mikell.

"I don't want to get involved in differences unless I can be the mediator," Summey said, adding that he thinks there's room for both groups in Union Heights. 

Mikell said his group has different goals than others interested in redeveloping Union Heights.

"The speculators and developers have a goal of making money," he said. "We have a goal of preserving and improving the community."

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Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.

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