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Editorials represent the institutional view of the newspaper. They are written and edited by the editorial staff, which operates separately from the news department. Editorial writers are not involved in newsroom operations.

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Editorial: Preserve Charleston Naval Hospital — with one key change

Naval Hospital_3.jpg (copy)

The former Charleston Naval Hospital on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020 in North Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

The pending sale of the long-vacant Charleston Naval Hospital to a private developer is good news for the effort to revitalize the once-bustling southern end of North Charleston.

County Council has given initial approval to selling the 10-story, 400,000-square-foot building at Rivers and McMillan avenues, plus 23 acres, for $15 million. The buyer is Navy Yard Development Co., led by Charleston developer and state Rep. William Cogswell, R-Charleston, and Jay Weaver of Atlanta-based Weaver Capital.

Mr. Cogswell has proven to be adept at such complex reclamation projects, including the Cigar Factory, which is encouraging given the importance of the hospital redevelopment in turning around the economically depressed area.

The developers are seeking historic tax credits for the project, which could add a wrinkle to the deal. Without the credits, which Mr. Cogswell has used successfully on other projects, the sales price due to the county would drop by $2 million.

We hope those credits eventually come through. Taxpayers have been beaten up enough by previous failed, costly attempts to renovate the hospital.

The tax credits also make sense even though the developers plan a significant alteration to the building’s first floor, which currently is nothing but a solid masonry wall.

No one is going to preserve the building as a military hospital, its original use, so some flexibility ought to be allowed in adapting it for a new, mixed-use building in what many hope will become a prominent urban node. Of all the locations along the proposed Lowcountry Rapid Transit line, almost no other intersection is as ripe for transformation as Rivers and MacMillan.

To require the Naval Hospital building to maintain its solid wall, which would make it significantly less inviting to pedestrians, would be a step backward. That’s why developers are expected to create new windows and doors, suitable for retail use, even if they lose out on tax credits.

Some might scoff at the notion that the hospital is historic — it was built between 1970 and 1973 — but the South Carolina State Board of Review agreed Friday to recommend placing the building on the National Register of Historic Places. Its redevelopment would be a big preservation win; not too long ago, there was strong sentiment to tear it down and start over from scratch. That appeared to be the most cost-effective option last year before Mr. Cogswell’s group came up with a proposal that could turn the vacant structure and taxpayer money pit into a community asset.

According to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, which help guide tax credit decisions, a building’s new use should require minimal change to its defining characteristics. But those standards also recognize a building’s rehabilitation will necessitate at least some repair or alteration “for an efficient contemporary use; however, these repairs and alterations must not damage or destroy materials, features or finishes that are important in defining the building’s historic character.”

While the alteration will change how the building relates to pedestrians, it will do little to alter its appearance from a distance (and it’s quite visible from a distance; it’s North Charleston’s tallest building).

The overall project is ambitious: Plans call for about 305 apartments in the former hospital, as well as a $59.5 million, 165,000-square-foot human services hub across the street. Others are working on a new library, a CARTA transfer station and a police substation.

A lot is riding on its success, including the potential for still more redevelopment and a long-sought-after grocery store in the area. This intersection once served as the front door to the Lowcountry’s largest employer, the former Naval Base and Shipyard, and included one of the region’s commercial hubs in the Pinehaven Shopping Center, which had two grocery stores, national retailers and many small businesses.

It needs a dramatic, successful investment to help put the area on the path toward regaining its former vitality. It’s been painful to watch many public-backed efforts sputter out in recent years; they proved good intentions and optimism are not enough. We hope that the county’s promising new partnership can succeed where others have failed.

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