Developing story packs high stakes

The Sergeant Jasper building. (Leroy Burnell/File)

The anomalous, 14-story Sergeant Jasper Apartments at 310 Broad Street are coming down this year, and long-awaited details on what the developer wants to rebuild there are supposed to be announced this month. Whatever the city approves for the 6.5 acres of former marsh and mud flats between Colonial Lake and the Ashley River will be among the biggest development stories in Charleston's 345-year history.

The developer is the Beach Company of Charleston, founded by the late J.C. Long in the 1940s and still owned and operated by his family. The Beach Company has floated some redevelopment information in recent years, but it is inconsistent and incomplete. Here is what is known thus far:

The towering, 65-year-old apartment building with ground-floor retail space will be dismantled brick by brick this year until the property is cleared. Residents of all 221 one- and two-bedroom apartments have vacated and the last retailer will soon follow. This four-acre site also includes a parking lot and an empty drive-through bank building at the corner of Broad and Barre streets.

New construction would include several buildings four to six stories tall with parking for residents of 420 apartments and condominiums, and 20,000 square feet of retail space. Fifteen percent of new residential rentals might be made available at lower rates to households with income of no more than $40,000. Total occupancy would at least double the number of residents of the vacated apartment building.

Also planned is a 120-foot-tall ground tower on which communications companies would lease space for cell phone receivers and transmitters. The tower eventually would be removed and the receivers/transmitters installed on top of one of the new buildings. The lease of this space would generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for the owners.

The developer says current zoning on the property allows the Beach Company to rebuild another 14-story high-rise apartment building and tower on the site, but the company prefers not to unless it has no other choice. This possibility is viewed as leverage to get zoning changes and other approvals for construction of the smaller buildings and a tower.

The adjacent 2.5-acre, high-ground tract between Barre Street and Lockwood Drive is called St. Mary's Field. This property offers a commanding view of the Ashley River just south of the Charleston Municipal Marina and mega dock for transient boaters, operated by a Beach Company affiliate. St. Mary's Field once was a saltwater marsh and mud flat that was partially filled to create a low strip of ground used for many years as a Bishop England High School practice field.

The field was filled in the early 1990s with Hurricane Hugo debris then covered with dirt and rocks, raised approximately 10 feet and leveled as an ideal waterfront building site.

The Beach Company wants to develop St. Mary's Field as a multi-story office building and, perhaps, more residential units along with parking.

But there is some question about whether or not the Beach Company will be allowed to do so because of prior restrictions on land use.

The city owns nearby Colonial Lake and Moultrie Playground at Broad Street and Ashley Avenue just east of the Sgt. Jasper site.

The 10-acre lake - once known as the Rutledge Avenue Pond - along with all marsh and mud flats to the Ashley River were set aside by the Colonial government as an open vista for public enjoyment.

The land around Colonial Lake became a city park in the 1880s. It is bordered by Beaufain and Broad streets to the north and south, and Rutledge and Ashley avenues east and west. A multimillion-dollar refurbishment of the lake and land around it is to begin soon.

The Beach Company purchased approximately seven acres between the lake and the river in 1949 from the City of Charleston prior to construction of Sgt. Jasper apartments.

In recent years the company approached the city about exchanging some of its Sgt. Jasper property for Moultrie Playground's lakeside tennis courts and baseball field. That plan was dropped after the public complained.

The loud public outcry is expected to resume once details of the Beach Company's new Sgt. Jasper and St. Mary's Field development are presented for all to see. Few would disagree that, although the developer has been working closely with city officials for years on this project, the approval process should neither be hurried nor piecemeal.

Considering the location of the property in the historic district, the city's planning and approval process for all 6.5 acres of Beach Company land should be considered as one Planned Unit Development (or PUD) before zoning laws are changed and building permits are issued.

Beach Company representatives stress that they want an open and thorough dialogue with the people of Charleston prior to removal of the Sgt. Jasper building, and that there should be a general consensus on what will go back up before any construction begins.

The developer has met with neighborhood associations, historic preservation groups, city officials and others, but a thorough public discussion and consensus have yet to occur.

Which begs the question: How could there be meaningful dialogue when the Beach Company has yet to release details of its entire plan?

Indeed, planning and zoning officials should not consider putting any portion of the Beach Company's plan on a fast track. It would be totally unacceptable.

The Sgt. Jasper Apartments were built by Beach Company scion Long in 1949-1950. It was the first high-rise residential building in downtown Charleston and was financed with a low-interest Federal Housing Administration loan. Charleston Mayor William McG. Morrison praised the project at that time as an excellent apartment building that was badly needed and an indication that the Beach Company had faith in the progressive future of Charleston.

Long, a Florida native, moved with his parents to Charleston as a teenager in the 1930s. He was a well-rounded athlete who played football and other sports at the High School of Charleston and later at the University of South Carolina, from which he earned a law degree.

After college, Mr. Long returned to Charleston and excelled as a personal-injury lawyer before purchasing more than a thousand acres on the Isle of Palms during World War II. There he built affordable houses for returning service members and their families. He was elected as a state senator for one term and later appointed to the powerful State Highway Commission. He also owned a bank and an insurance company.

At one time, Mr. Long was considered the largest landowner in Charleston County. A significant portion of his land was newly filled marshes and mud flats. In addition to the Sgt. Jasper, he built Bayside Manor, which later became a low-income housing project, on the Cooper River. And he built Shoreview Apartments, another low-income housing project across the peninsula on the Ashley River.

Bayside Manor's name was changed to Bridgeview Village apartments and remains low-income housing now operated by a California investment firm. Shoreview Apartments on the Ashley River were vacated in 2001 and torn down by the Beach Company to make way for the chic Longborough neighborhood, just north of Hampton Park and Wagener Terrace.

John M. Burbage is a life-long journalist who lives in downtown Charleston and on a farm and wildlife preserve in Hampton County. He may be reached at jburbage@postandcourier.com.