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Editorial: Open Charleston's Lowline as soon as possible, beautify it later

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A proposed rendering of the future Lowcoutry Lowline. Friends of the Lowline/Provided

Before work begins in earnest on the Lowcountry Lowline — the planned linear park that will follow an old railroad right of way between the Charleston Visitor Center and Mount Pleasant Street — the city needs a grip on what contamination exists along the route and how best to deal with it.

Once that becomes clear, likely by this summer, the city should turn its attention to opening up the path as soon as possible. The anticipation of the park’s potential, which began building years before the city acquired the old right of way in 2017, became even more clear this week as the Friends of the Lowline, a nonprofit group, unveiled its vision of what the space could become. The vision was presented to Charleston City Council Tuesday and soon will be shown to neighborhood groups along the route.

That vision includes a walking path, a separate path for bikes and a covered pavilion, concession stands and, of course, extensive trees and plantings. Scott Parker, a landscape architect and a leader of the Friends, said, “The opportunities for Charleston are profound.”

We agree, but we expect this remains years in the future. The Friends group is only beginning to seek neighborhood feedback to refine its plan. And until such a plan becomes more clear, we won’t know what it will cost. Knowing that price tag in turn will shape a discussion of how much should be paid for by the nonprofit, others in the private sector and by city taxpayers.

So we agree with the city’s strategy to tackle this in phases, beginning with the environmental study under way. The Lowline may take shape much like the West Ashley Greenway, which was a modest path along Savannah Highway for decades before its current, ongoing transformation that’s being aided by the nonprofit Charleston Parks Conservancy.

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After the environmental work, the city should move quickly to open the Lowline space to the public by focusing on safety upgrades, such as lighting, signs and the crosswalks where the Lowline will cross Huger, Line, Romney, Cypress and other streets.

A phased approach not only would create a public benefit as design work and fundraising continue, but it also would help ease concerns that the Lowline would displace nearby residents of modest means. That’s a real concern, as seen in New York City, where the dramatically successful High Line has transformed neighborhoods on the Lower West Side. A study by HRA Advisors Inc., a New York-based consulting firm, also made clear how the Lowline could have a catalytic effect on new development nearby.

The great thing about the Lowline is its potential to be more than a park. It promises to give cyclists, in particular, a safer way to traverse the upper peninsula — one totally separate from car traffic (except at the aforementioned intersections). That transportation benefit also will mostly help nearby residents, those who also are most vulnerable to gentrification.

But as the city pursues the more modest goals of environmental study and basic improvements, we all should keep dreaming of — and discussing — what we want the Lowline to be once it’s all grown up.

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