In the next 20 to 25 years, the downtown skyline as seen from West Ashley could feature new apartments, parking garages, and biotechnical research facilities. New construction is expected to begin this fall in an area near the Medical University of South Carolina called the Horizon District.
The district is framed by Lockwood Drive to the west, Fishburne Street to the north, Hagood Avenue to the east, and Spring Street to the south. Existing structures, including Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park, Charleston Police Department headquarters, and the Charleston Marriott, will remain in place, but much of the surrounding land will be used for new construction.
"The easiest way to define it is if you see a gravel parking lot, that's basically the land we're working with," says Michael Maher, CEO of the Horizon Project Foundation. A nonprofit organization created by the City of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina Foundation, the Horizon Project Foundation seeks to turn the area into a hub where thousands of new residents can live and work. MUSC and the city currently own all of the land in question and are seeking buyers to build on the land.
The task of building up the Horizon District comes with a few unique challenges. For one, the area is a mid-century landfill that is slowly subsiding into the Ashley River, requiring all buildings and roads to be built on pilings. Another problem has to do with financing. The city plans to fund the Horizon District's infrastructure improvements via a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district that started in 2008, but tax revenues slumped during the recession, throwing off the city's projections.
The Horizon Project Foundation has also promised the city that it will maintain the current amount of parking spaces during construction, so MUSC employees and RiverDogs fans will not have to hunt elsewhere for parking. "It's a very challenging choreography," Maher says.
If all goes according to plan, Maher says the Horizon District could include up to 3,000 new residential units, consisting of apartments and condominiums (the site's zoning requires that at least 15 percent of the units must be affordable workforce housing). The plan for the 20-acre site, as presented at a recent Board of Architectural Review meeting, includes 51 percent residential infill; 30 percent biotech research centers with an incubator, accelerator, and offices; 10 percent commercial, retail, and restaurant space; and 9 percent space for expansion or enhancement of pre-existing businesses. Maher says he expects Project Zero, a parking garage and apartments on the site of existing police department parking, to begin construction in the fall.
According to Maher, the Horizon District has the potential to attract a billion dollars worth of investment. The first quarter-billion is expected to come from public funding via the TIF district. The other $750 million would come from private investors.
What does the city get out of all this? For starters, Horizon is meant to help make Charleston a bigger player in the biotechnology industry, extending some of the medical research being conducted at MUSC into the commercial realm. Early this month, Quebec-based Aeterna Zentaris Inc. announced it would invest $1 million and create 60 jobs in the area, citing the future of the Horizon District as one of its motivations. The company, which develops treatments for cancers and endocrine diseases, will initially move into the SCRA Applied Research Center in North Charleston but will move to a more permanent location later.
Horizon will also be a new mixed-use neighborhood, featuring ground-level retail and restaurants with sidewalk dining along what Maher describes as "a 30-foot-wide urban promenade that is really thought about as a linear park or a linear plaza." The plan is to extend Horizon Street and connect it with Lockwood Drive, creating the main corridor for the Horizon District.
"The vision is that the main public realm of Horizon in time becomes like Second Sunday on King Street — every day," Maher says.
Maher says that for the first phase of development after Project Zero, the Horizon Project Foundation has been in talks with a grocer to bring a full-service, 40,000-square-foot-plus grocery store to the ground floor of one of the buildings.
The Horizon Project Foundation chose Atlanta-based development company Gateway Development Services as a private partner in the project partly because they had previous experience with a similar project. In Midtown Atlanta, Gateway developed Centergy, a collaboration with Georgia Tech that includes technology companies, research and incubator spaces, high-end restaurants, and outdoor cafes. (Centergy made headlines in 2009 when one of its parking decks collapsed due to what some engineers found to be a construction flaw. Mack Reese, a principal at Gateway, says the problem was the fault of installers employed by a subcontractor of a subcontractor. "The prescribed design detail is no longer utilized by precast suppliers, and the erection sub-subcontractor is no longer used by any of the parties involved," Reese says.)
Maher says the planned pedestrian areas around Horizon Street are key to the Horizon District's success.
"You want to be able to have this situation where people run into colleagues, friends, or people who might be outside of their normal working environment and they start talking about what they're doing. And those are the connections that can eventually lead to new discoveries," Maher says.
Here's something you might not have known: The Horizon District is built on 10 to 15 feet of trash. According to Maher's research, the city opened a solid waste dump on the west side of the peninsula in the 1950s and for more than a decade people pushed refrigerators, household waste, medical waste, and cars into the wetlands, eventually forming a solid landmass.
Building on top of a landfill is a challenging task, but it's been done before. Sections of Chicago's Streeterville neighborhood and San Francisco's Marina District were built atop landfills, and part of Charleston's own White Point Garden was built on a landfill. Because of the relative instability of the land, all streets and buildings in the district will have to be built atop pilings. Maher says the Horizon Project Foundation is also working with the Army Corps of Engineers and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to figure out how to stop erosion on a creek in the area that is currently draining decades-old garbage into the Ashley River.
Building on a landfill is tricky and expensive, which is why the city created a Tax Increment Financing district in the area in 2008. In a TIF, the city borrows money to fund public projects and sets aside any increase in property tax revenues over a set time period to pay off the debt. The city had to seek approval from the school district and Charleston County Council before starting the TIF because both entities will be forgoing increased tax revenues in that area until the deadline, which is currently set at 2033.
When a city creates a TIF district, it is banking on projected growth in property tax revenues, partly due to increased property values and new landowners in the area. However, during the Great Recession, property value failed to increase as expected in the Horizon District. Other factors included the Bee Street Lofts, which had just been built in 2008. As residents bought up the lofts, tax revenues actually decreased due to a South Carolina Act 388, which provides tax relief when a property is owner-occupied.
Earlier this month, Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. asked the county and school district to extend the TIF deadline to 2043, but the Post and Courier reported that County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor was hesitant to approve the proposal because it would mean a further forfeiture of tax revenues by the county. City Council will vote on TIF extensions for both Horizon and a former industrial site in the Neck on June 17.
If all goes according to plan, Maher says the Horizon District will help prevent brain drain by creating high-paying, challenging, tech-oriented jobs on the peninsula.
"The phrase is 'turning trash into treasure,' you know, but it's not 'treasure to my coffers.' It's treasure to the community, creating an economically viable and livable place [on] what used to be a trash landfill," Maher says.