Hanging over Interstate 26 just past a modest "Welcome to Charleston" sign is a commanding billboard with a large magnolia that claims underneath "Change is On the Way." A quick glance to the right (you are driving, after all) to see the warehouses and port containers clouding the view of the Ashley River makes a more than reasonable case for said change.
"You get a promise and then that promise is immediately destroyed when you get to what is now on the Magnolia property," says developer Jim Lumsden, one of the partners of Magnolia Development, which plans to redevelop the industrial sites on the Ashley River. "That area is sort of a no-man's-land."
Commuters and tourists drive into Charleston daily, passing through a worn industrial playground before ever glimpsing the promised postcard images of Rainbow Row, the market, and horses and buggies. But burgeoning efforts by city planners and private investors like Lumsden are expected to give Charleston's main entrance off Interstate 26 a facelift as new urbanist staples of blended homes, offices, stores, and parks replace the marred Charleston introduction.
The promise three years ago of expansive private development in the Neck of the peninsula, literally from the shores of the Ashley River to the Cooper, prompted the city to envision its own Neck plans. With development beginning on Magnolia's vision, the recent improved access to the nearby East Central area just off the new Arthur Ravenel Bridge has led city planners to make zoning changes in that area that could spur similar, though smaller, new urbanist developments.
Years ago, Lumsden and his business partner Craig Briner were looking to redevelop large brownfields, sites that have to be cleansed of contaminants prior to redevelopment. Not surprisingly, they had trouble finding the vision of parks, homes, and commercial business in the remote area known as the Neck.
"All we could see were the containers," Lumsden says. "We snaked through the containers and found what's not being seen by the interstate."
That would be the waters of the Ashley River. So, with help from local developer Robert Clement III, Lumsden and Briner created Magnolia Development and began acquiring vast parcels on the Neck, including the 117-acre Magnolia property, a 56-acre property just up the Ashley in North Charleston called the Ashley River Center, and the 130-acre Macalloy Steel property on the Cooper River.
On Monday, Nov. 20, Magnolia Development celebrated the completion of the federally-mandated cleanup of the Macalloy site. Most of the site will be resold for port-related industries, and there are plans to relocate several of the industrial businesses that now sit on the Magnolia property.
"We didn't want to lose those companies and we didn't want to see them move farther out of town," Clement says.
As companies are moved, Charleston residents can expect to see warehouse demolition starting in the next few months and the installation of roads and utilities over the next year. Buildings should start coming out of the ground in 18 months to two years, but the project likely won't be built out for another decade or more, Briner says.
Development plans include 1,000 residential units and 200,000 square feet of office and retail space at the Ashley River Center, while the Magnolia site will have 3,800 residential units and 900,000 square feet of office and retail space.
A major change included in the city's Neck development plans has been the possible rerouting of Interstate 26 through the Neck, moving it further east toward King and Meeting streets. City planner Christopher Morgan says the regional Council of Governments is studying the potential to move the highway to bring some torn Rutledge area communities back together.
While the Magnolia plans will likely be driving redevelopment in the Neck area, the city is looking to make the East Central community more attractive by shifting zoning in the area from a blanket of industrial to a mix of general business and diverse residential. The zoning changes were recently approved by the City Council.
"Times are changing," Morgan says. "Light industrial uses tend to be edging further out."
That's leaving some properties vacant. There's also the reality that several of the properties in the area are already being used for homes and offices, including the City Paper office on Morrison Drive.
With the shrinking amount of available space further down the peninsula, it's no surprise that residential development is expected. The new neighborhoods will include affordable housing and Morgan says he also expects the demand for retail space to seep into the neighborhood.
"That entire area of the peninsula has been underserved," Morgan says.
Though the space for larger developments is limited, one major player in the redevelopment of the East Central neighborhood will be the Ginn Co., which plans the 186-acre Promenade development on former county and city landfills.
While most of the development in the Neck and East Central neighborhoods will be private, city officials are scouring the area for park space to complement the new community look of the once industrial burgs. Magnolia includes large park plans and public views of the Ashley River, but the city is also worried about the need for active park space like soccer fields and baseball diamonds, Morgan says.
So, while "change" hasn't come yet, it's clearly on the way.