South Carolina's Public Service Commission most often affects our daily lives by deciding whether utilities can charge us more, but today it will have a chance to affect our lives in a more significant, long-term sense by helping create a new urban park in the middle of Charleston's historic district. It should seize this special opportunity.
The opportunity stems from Dominion Energy's decision that it no longer needs the historic downtown office created by S.C. Electric & Gas Co. in the 19th century. The property is slightly more than an acre and includes an historic circa 1878 office on Meeting Street, designed by renowned Charleston architect E.B. White, as well as an old building on King. Its fate has been uncertain for several years, as SCE&G's implosion over the failed V.C. Summer nuclear plant in Fairfield County interrupted initial efforts to turn the site into a new city park.
Fortunately, that idea survived and recently received new life when Beemok Capital stepped forward with a fresh plan to create the park at little expense to the city — a plan Mayor John Tecklenburg has called “an act of remarkable public philanthropy.” Beemok, the new owner of Charleston Place one block north, is offering to buy the property from Dominion for its $11.5 million appraised value and create a community park that it would operate primarily for public benefit, subject to regular operating hours and closure for maintenance and private events. The deal calls for Beemok to develop the park "to an equal or higher standard than the quality of similar parks for public benefit located within the city."
The arrangement is not unlike the city's recent deal with Lowe at its new Cooper Hotel site, where the company is paying for the northward extension of Waterfront Park and as a result has an inside track to use the space for occasional private events while maintaining it for use as a public park most of the time.
While Dominion might be able to get more for the parcel if it sought bids, that’s not guaranteed. And anyone bidding more than $11.5 million likely would be pursuing a development that would not enrich our quality of life in a similar way, and that could actually diminish the attractiveness of one of our state's most important tourism destinations.
We urge the Public Service Commission to waive the requirement for putting the property out for bids and approve this sale to Beemok.
The only headwinds in the negotiations have come from the city's inability to get the Gibbes Museum of Art's full support. However, Beemok's letter of intent notes that once it acquires the 141 Meeting property, it plans to enter into a mutually agreeable transaction to transfer ownership of the historic E.B. White building to the Gibbes, which has been interested in acquiring the building for years. The city, which has been a vital partner with the Gibbes since its inception, would contribute funding to help the museum make that purchase. While the historic building would be kept, we think it's sensible to remove later additions in the rear in order to increase the size of the future park.
The Gibbes' other concern has been that Beemok's new park could hurt the revenue the museum receives from renovating its own courtyard space next door. We understand that worry and urge both parties to continue talking about how best to manage any conflicts, but we view this as a minor point that should not block a much larger effort to create this new public park that, unlike what we're paying these days for gas and electricity, will be celebrated for many generations to come.
As the Charleston region grows, it's important that our historic downtown evolves to remain an important place in the lives of all of us, not only those who live downtown but also those who live nearby. One excellent strategy to accomplish this is, where possible, to expand public parks. With Charleston's preservation ethic and abundance of historic architecture, the opportunities to create these new parks and open spaces in the historic core are quite limited. That's why when a possibility emerges — particularly one on such favorable terms to city taxpayers — we must not let it pass by.