Plan to rebuild East Side in works

Looking down Lee Street, the Cooper River bridges used to be between Meeting Street and Morrison Drive.

An $11 million plan is in the works to help redevelop the East Side land where the old Cooper River bridges stood, but Charleston County officials want assurances minorities will share in the work.

The financing plan calls for the city, county and school district to agree that some future property tax revenues can be dedicated to redeveloping the bridge area and surrounding community.

Known as a tax increment financing district, or TIF, the concept is to borrow money and make public improvements, then repay the debt with tax money generated by real estate development that follows.

The Charleston County School District approved the TIF district Nov. 26, and Charleston City Council will take it up Thursday, but Charleston County Council declined to immediately approve the plan Thursday, after some council members raised questions about minority contracting goals and said they would like to play a larger role in the redevelopment plans.

"Our council would like to have an opportunity to talk with the city of Charleston as it relates to their objectives and desires for minority participation," County Councilman Tim Scott said.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, after learning of the action, said he'd be happy to talk with Charleston County officials, and said the city shares their desire to increase minority participation in

government contracts.

"We're on the same wavelength," said Riley, who also has been hearing dissatisfaction about minority contracting from members of City Council.

On Thursday, County Council gave initial approval to raising the county's goal from 10 percent to 20 percent for doing business with minority- and women-owned companies, and Scott said the county wants to make sure minorities aren't left out with the proposed special taxing district.

The county estimates it would forgo $3 million over the course of up to 25 years by participating in the taxing district because that tax money would be used to pay for East Side redevelopment instead of going to the county's general fund.

The theory behind such tax districts is that any forgone property tax revenue would likely not have existed without the public investment created by the TIF.

"Part of the rationale of a TIF is that you are looking at areas that are blighted," said Michael Maher, director of the Charleston Civic Design Center. "I never like to use that word, but you are looking at an area that clearly needs investment in order for redevelopment to occur."

The financing plan would put Charleston one step closer to rebuilding a neighborhood long divided by the path of the Grace and Pearman bridges.

The city's concept calls for "reknitting" the neighborhood by reconnecting streets that the bridges had cut off, and by building hundreds of homes, plus new stores and civic spaces.

The TIF plan is focused on the bridge area, but also runs up Meeting Street as far as Conroy Street, and along Huger Street from Morrison Drive to Interstate 26.

"Some investments we might make could go beyond the bridge footprint itself," Maher said.

A bicycle path along East Bay Street and restoration of the former South Carolina Electric & Gas Trolley Barn are among the initiatives the special district could fund.

"We would anticipate reinvestment in Martin Park and the MLK Pool, and street and sidewalk improvements that could go well beyond the bridge district," Maher said. "Probably the big investment is for drainage."

Redevelopment of the area became possible when the Grace and Pearman bridges were demolished, after the new Cooper River bridge was completed.

An estimated 350 homes for people of various income levels could rise on the land between Meeting Street and Morrison Drive, from Cooper Street to Lee Street. Riley has said the city's goal is for half the housing to meet guidelines for affordability.

The Charleston Civic Design Center held community meetings about the redevelopment in the fall of 2006, and the city is now awaiting the results of an economic feasibility study.