Weaving Charleston’s East Side Back Together Again

A sample rendering of what a new affordable housing complex could look like on F Street, a city-owned property in Charleston that will face the new Lowcountry Lowline linear park. (Credit: Charleston Design Center)

There’s a sprawl of vacant land on the east side of Charleston, South Carolina, that might seem like an ideal blank canvas for development in a quickly-growing city.

But the nearly one-acre area between Nassau, Cooper, Lee and Aiken streets hasn’t always been empty. It was a part of the historically black East Side neighborhood, where families lived in single homes and duplexes.

The neighborhood was first threatened in the 1920s when construction began on the Grace Memorial Bridge over the Cooper River. Residents were further displaced in the 1960s, with the construction of new ramps to a second Cooper River Bridge. That project ultimately split the neighborhood for the next several decades.

Both bridges were dismantled after construction of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, which opened in 2005. As for the East Side area torn apart by construction, the South Carolina Department of Transportation gave most of that land back to the city.

Now, the East Side parcel is one of two sites for which the city recently released detailed Requests for Proposals. Affordable housing is planned for both, but they are also part of a larger effort to knit together Charleston neighborhoods cut off and harmed by infrastructure development.

The second site is a vacant parcel the city acquired when it purchased a 1.6 mile-long railroad right-of-way for construction of the Lowcountry Low Line park. Advocates behind the proposed park route, which would span one-and-a-half miles, see it as connecting neighborhoods negatively impacted by construction of an interstate and crosstown expressway.

“The construction of the interstate came down the center of the peninsula, fragmenting mainly African American neighborhoods, and it split the peninsula in half running east-west,” says Winslow Hastie, president of the Lowcountry Low Line board and chief preservation officer of the Historic Charleston Foundation. “Around that same time, a crosstown expressway was built that severed predominantly African American neighborhoods from north to south.”

Such work, Hastie says, “left a scar, of sorts, in the fabric of the community.” The Low Line route would span from the upper end of the peninsula down to the heart of the city. “We’re trying to see the Low Line as an opportunity to re-knit some of these neighborhoods and allow for safe passage between them,” says Hastie.

Realizing the significance of both sites, the city released highly detailed Requests for Proposals in its attempt to find developers. The city’s Design Division proposed floor plans to outline what’s expected, and what would likely be approved by permitting boards. Sample renderings for the property off the Low Line include a unit mix approved by the city: 24 studios and one-bedroom units, 12 two bedrooms and nine three bedrooms to accommodate families.

“Our hope is that by doing exhaustive analysis and design prior to the issuance of the RFP, we can help developers achieve the project faster and with less conceptual design time,” says Jacob Lindsey, director of the Charleston Department of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability.

Lindsey notes that the East Side site — which would be within walking distance to the Low Line — is particularly complicated. Last year, after a redevelopment plan fell through, the city partnered with the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative to tackle site challenges, which included a location prone to flooding and zoning restraints.

Both sites were re-zoned into the city’s “Mixed-Use Workforce Housing” category, which carries no density limit. The city envisions over 100 new units between both sites, according to Lindsey.

Development of the East Side site will build off a decade of community engagement from the city’s prolonged attempt to build there. “We’re on very good footing in terms of community engagement,” Lindsey says, with community input worked into a larger masterplan for the area as well as the latest iteration for this parcel.

“The Lowline site is different,” Lindsey says. The city and Lowcountry Low Line board have yet to kick off a community engagement process, though it’s expected to begin this year. “We’ve really got to figure out what the future looks like in terms of design, construction, how it engages with the neighborhood, and the other, bigger piece, in how it will be maintained and managed,” says Hastie.

Both Hastie and Lindsey know the planning process for the park will likely increase property values in proximity to the Low Line. So for this development site, “our goal is to deliver affordable housing as rapidly as possible,” Lindsey says.

If the RFP process goes according to plan, according to Lindsey, both developments could be completed by the end of 2021.

“Both of these sites are unique for us,” Lindsey says. “If we can deliver them, we’ll bring over 100 units of affordable housing adjacent to the Low Line, and ideally deliver [housing] before it’s built. That’s our goal.”

This story is part of The Power of Parks, a series exploring how parks and recreation facilities and services can help cities achieve their goals in wellness, conservation and social equity. The Power of Parks is supported by a grant from the National Recreation and Park Association.

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, New York-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Curbed and other publications.

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