Beach sounds a high alert against the Lowline rail vision

Site of the planned Lowline.

Everyone loves the Lowline.

It is a vision for Charleston’s next signature project: Take a dilapidated rail line that cuts an ugly scar down the center of the peninsula and turn it into a magnificent common ground that unites the city. Almost two miles and 15 acres, it will be the peninsula’s second largest park, behind only Hampton Park, Charleston’s own Central Park.

This is the ambitious vision of two Charleston transplants, hedge-fund investor Michael Messner and retired television producer Tom Bradford, and it has been embraced by almost everyone in their adopted city, including our old mayor and our new mayor.

So it is surprising to find that a skeptic of this proposed bike- and pedestrian-friendly greenway is the state’s foremost environmentalist, Dana Beach, founder of the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League.

For more than a quarter of a century, Beach, 60, has been at the forefront of virtually every big environmental fight in the state, saving thousands of acres of coastal land, battling giant hog farms in the Pee Dee and giant cruise ships in Charleston. He is a small man who thinks big and decades ahead.

He has been quiet on the Lowline.

Until now.

Beach’s concern: Parks are important, but transportation is more important. If the old Norfolk Southern rail bed is used for the Lowline, it can’t be used for the bus rapid transit or rail Charleston badly needs.

“The first priority is to accommodate transit,” says Beach. “If there is another option that serves the purpose as well as that right of way, that’s fine. But we shouldn’t give it up until we are absolutely certain that is the case.”

The debate pits two passionate men, neighbors actually, who are trying to do the right thing for their city. Both live South of Broad on Gibbes Street, Beach in a big house, Messner a couple of blocks down in a much bigger house — complete with pool. Just in between is Joe Riley, the former mayor.

Beach, a Columbia native, started as a New York investment banker, but quit at 28 to save the planet. Messner, an Atlanta native, made his fortune on Wall Street, trading undervalued stocks at Seminole Capital Management.

About four and a half years ago, Messner, 62, and his wife, Jenny, moved to Charleston. They quickly became go-to players in the city’s world of philanthropy, funding charter schools, wifi for the parks and the Lowline.

Last year, the Friends of the Lowcountry Lowline obtained a two-year option from Norfolk Southern to acquire the 1.7-mile abandoned corridor from Courtland to Woolfe streets. They plan a first-class linear park modeled on New York’s popular High Line, built atop an abandoned elevated rail line.

Messner said The Friends could complete the deal by the end of the summer, a year ahead of deadline. The park could be built for about $30 million “funded by the increased economic development it generates and philanthropy dollars,” he said.

The Friends of the Lowcountry Lowline is the only group ready to move ahead with a deal with Norfolk Southern, Messner says. Building light rail from Summervile would be prohibitively expensive — “upwards to $3 billion” — and divide the city.

“The linear park will tie the city together; passenger rail will create a new barrier,” he says.

Beach believes the Lowline needs to be considered as part of a larger redevelopment of the upper peninsula. He questions whether the rail bed will make a good park, noting noise from the interstate, safety concerns. Plus, he says, “It doesn’t go anywhere.”

The Beach plan: Kill the widening of I-26 from I-526 to Mt. Pleasant Street, tear down the elevated highway and build a boulevard from the end of the proposed port access road at Spruill into the city, ending the interstate at Spruill.

Include rail/bus rapid transit to Summerville, along with a bike and pedestrian lane. He puts the cost at $400 million, far less than improving I-26. Half the cost could come in federal dollars. Upgrade to light rail later if the demand is there.

Continue the boulevard conversion down the Crosstown, reconnecting neighborhoods. Tear down the “idiotic” overpass at the Crosstown-Lockwood light and replace the old Ashley River bridge with one that will accommodate walkers and bikers.

“Bottom line: Mike isn’t paying enough attention to the whole system. He’s too focused on this one item, well meaning as he is.”

The Lowline is an exciting vision. But it also represents exactly the kind of balancing act we face as Charleston is threatened by its own success: parks and transit, what are our choices and how do they fit together?

What we know at this point is dwarfed by what we don’t know.

Friends are good, but public decisions belong in the public realm. Let the debate begin.

Steve Bailey is a former Boston Globe columnist who has returned to his hometown. He can be reached at sjbailey1060@yahoo.com.