City shopping center rehab effort "deader than dead" without cash incentive 

No cure for those eyesores

Ashley Landing is the same strip mall you'll see in any suburb. At the intersection of Sam Rittenberg Boulevard and Old Towne Road, it's the kind of lot that is hard to remember. And, if it does come to mind, it won't be because of the large building's charm or the wide, deep parking lot's appeal.

At a recent West Ashley community meeting, residents pressed city officials on issues like crime, parks, and traffic — things that impact the quality of life and also play an important part in elevating property values. They also wanted to know when Ashley Landing would get a much-needed makeover.

It's a good question for the property owner, said Mayor Joe Riley. "We work and push and question and argue and plan and communicate and support," he said. "In the final analysis, it's privately owned, and we have to work with the private owner."

Two years ago, city planners rolled out an ambitious vision for rehabilitating roughly a dozen of Charleston's aging, unsightly, and often unused shopping centers — ones mostly recognizable for their large, barren parking lots and storefronts checkered with signs that either read "For Lease" or "Yes, We're Open."

The vision was that those barren parking lots could be filled with small mixed-use buildings — retail units on the street with offices or condos on upper floors. The owner gets better use of their site and the city prevents development from creeping farther out into the rural parts of Charleston County. What the city couldn't provide was cash. And it appears, in the current market, that's the kind of motivation property owners respond to.

City Councilman Aubry Alexander, who represents the West Ashley district, says the shopping center rezoning proposal is "deader than dead."

"It would take a huge demand from the community and particularly from the business community," he says.

Though the city's effort in 2008 was meant to offer innovative opportunities to turn these asphalt havens into community centers, the proposed changes were seen by some property owners as an example of municipal meddling.

What's surprising about Ashley Landing is just who owns the center and what they have accomplished elsewhere. The Cordish Co. has worked redevelopment magic in other cities, including urban projects like Ballpark Village in St. Louis, Mo., and the iconic Power Point mixed-use project on Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Cordish did not respond to questions about when or if Ashley Landing would get a makeover. But there are several factors keeping most shopping center owners from improving sites. The economy is likely the largest disincentive right now. Long-term tenant contracts tend to include stipulations regarding storefront parking and an unobstructed view from the street, complicating major renovations.

And with shops full, it's hard to argue that mall owners need to shake things up. "As long as it's full, there's no inspiration to make any changes," says Alexander.

Josh Martin, the former city planning director who argued for the initial plan in 2008, now works for the local environmental nonprofit Coastal Conservation League. He's helping to lead a national effort to promote sustainable communities by addressing the blight left behind as shopping centers grow farther and farther into the suburbs.

"We've been building out and building out for decades," Martin says. "We're going to be spending the next 50 years retrofitting and repairing."

The hope in 2008 was that property owners would jump at the redevelopment opportunities. The changes would mean more square feet for lease, improving a property owner's bottom line in the long run. But it would have also required them to pay heavily on the front end for infrastructure and construction.

"We thought we could give them more height and density," Martin says. "But you need something that's lucrative for them."

Positioning itself for major renovations, Beaufort Plaza is just the kind of strip mall that needed a little help. The aging shopping center is at a high-traffic intersection. Martin says the City of Beaufort's recent investment in improving the roadway got the property owners inspired to make the kinds of changes Charleston was proposing for its strip malls in 2008.

The difference was what the municipality was willing to contribute. The City of Beaufort is using tax dollars collected in the area to pay for the new road network so the large parking lot can be replaced with a collection of streets and mixed-use buildings.

This idea of pitching in some money to seal the deal is not alien to the City of Charleston. The proposed Horizon redevelopment near Joe Riley Stadium will be a public-private partnership; it will likely include a substantial investment from the city to improve the soil and lay out a new network of streets. But this kind of activity is more commonly found in the urban setting of the peninsula than in the suburbs.

The city is narrowing its list when it comes to identifying possible suburban community centers, says Tim Keane, the city's Director of Planning, Preservation, and Sustainabilty.

When the economy improves, Keane says, "You'll definitely see a renewed interest in these locations. Ashley Landing would be at the top of that list."

Focusing on those targets could make it easier to justify public financing for things like infrastructure costs.

The City of North Charleston has an idea for what to do when all else fails. In March, City Council approved spending $2.5 million to purchase Shipwatch Square, a rundown Rivers Avenue shopping center.

The city's first priority is to find a grocery store willing to anchor the site; the deal will likely be sweetened with tax incentives. Officials would then continue redevelopment, possibly building low-cost housing for senior citizens.

But North Charleston is, in the best sense of the word, desperate for change and running out of options for the aging Shipwatch. Other shopping centers in the area will likely be able to wait out the economic downturn, while keeping an eye out for opportunities.

Meanwhile, Alexander notes that the city and the county are making improvements to the intersection at Sam Rittenberg and Old Towne, as well as nearby park construction at the North Bridge. He's hopeful that those kinds of public investment could drive the private property owners to action.

"Rather than having a hammer in hand, we're encouraging them," Alexander says. "We're hoping they see what we're doing to improve and enrich the community. Then they say, 'I want to be a part of it.'"

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