A new condo tower looks over the slowly redeveloping Navy Yard in North Charleston. One of the few new structures at the former military site, West Yard Lofts holds the promise of something different along a riverfront full of port traffic and manufacturing. It is a commanding first glimpse into a new vision for the area: homes, shops, and businesses. The tower may be more of a reminder than a precursor — the last piece of a mixed-use community that could soon be lost to railroad and industry.
Ironically, an urban community is just the kind of thing S.C. Commerce Department Secretary Joe Taylor likes about his downtown Columbia headquarters. "My house is a mile from here," he says from his 16th floor office in the state's capital. "One of the greatest gifts I've seen is the ability to work a mile away from your house. To have these kinds of jobs right there in the City of North Charleston is one hell of an enhancement."
Taylor is right that the jobs will be "right there," but employees will have to cross over fresh railroad tracks and face even more train traffic on the short commute to work. The state's sudden, unpolished plan to develop the Navy Yard into a rail yard and train route has city leaders and residents bristling. Some are already put off by the wait time at railroad crossings, but Taylor promises to help find solutions.
But not everyone trusts what they're hearing from Columbia. "Why the hell would you believe them?" asks North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, who says the Commerce Department is breaking an eight-year-old agreement with the State Ports Authority that rail traffic wouldn't head north through the Navy Yard redevelopment.
Summey accuses state leaders of orchestrating a conspiracy to acquire the land for the tracks. It's the kind of plot that would make any political wonk blush, but it leaves the rest of us cold. In the end, this is about a community that said no and a state that said yes.
For years, there has been a political staring match between North Charleston leaders intent on revitalizing the Navy Yard and state officials focused on improving rail access through North Charleston. Last year, Summey stopped staring and started working to secure a deal with rail line CSX that would keep new trains off his Navy Yard.
The move caught leaders at the S.C. Department of Commerce and its Public Railways division by surprise. They began working their own angle, rallying support from legislators, rival rail line Norfolk Southern, and big business interests at the Port of Charleston. Commerce Department officials also began working behind the scenes to negotiate the private sale and eventual transfer of hundreds of acres at the Navy Yard.
But Summey is ready to fight. He says this battle will likely drag on for years, possibly long after the new port opens.
It's a Miracle
"We're not as far along with this as we'd like to be — as people think we are," says Jeff McWhorter, president and CEO of S.C. Public Railways. "The foreclosure of the Noisette property is what drove us to get to where we are today."
Noisette was a 3,000-acre sustainable redevelopment project centered on five city blocks on the Navy Yard property. When the bottom dropped out of the economy, developers found themselves unable to renegotiate a loan and were forced to sell off a large swath of the project. The Commerce Department seized on the fortuitous opportunity, quietly securing the land through the foreclosure process with the help of former Commerce Secretary Bob Faith.
Fortuitous, but not timely or well thought out. The state has more than enough land to build its own rail yard to transfer port containers and a new set of tracks that will mainly be used to shuttle Norfolk Southern cargo through the Navy Yard. The state also has plenty of land to relocate Clemson University's buildings, including future construction to support its wind turbine facility. The Commerce Department is also offering the school an expanded role in managing the 200 acres the state now owns. But school officials are unclear about what that means, and there's no real plan for what to do with all the extra land.
The state also doesn't have solid numbers on what the increased rail traffic will do to an already strained crossing at North Rhett Avenue, and there isn't a firm commitment from the rail companies that they've even bought into the proposal, making the whole project difficult to justify to a rightly weary and mistrustful community.
"There's still a lot of work that needs to be done," McWhorter says.
Taylor pitches the state's role at Noisette, including Clemson's designated role managing the site, as manna from heaven.
"In the real estate economy like we're dealing with today, to have someone with a reputation like Clemson to come in and take over that thing to ensure that something positive is going to happen, isn't anything short of a miracle," he says.
Though Taylor refers to Noisette as a failed development, the state's plan recognizes that there has been some success at its core: the Navy Yard. The proposed tracks have been rerouted to the western end of the site, and an overpass has been pitched to avoid blocking traffic heading to businesses at Storefront Row and the city's Riverfront Park, an early investment in the redevelopment.
Two museums are also highlighted in the plan: a Hunley museum near the park and a city museum and community center at the Navy Yard's powerhouse, a facility that has been a major project for Summey. It's hard to say what else visitors will find, Taylor says, but it may include a mix of university buildings and small businesses.
"Are we looking at this to be a manufacturing center? Probably not, the land is too valuable, and it's not that big enough of a site. It would be a great location for research and development," Taylor says. "There's no rush to do anything except for the best way and the right way."
A Little Perplexed
Like the mayor's plan with CSX, the state would work to remove tracks currently running through the Park Circle community near Sesame and North Charleston High School, sending those trains to Virginia Avenue. The state would also designate tracks heading around the community as "quiet zones:" residents will still hear the trains, but the conductors won't be allowed to ring the bell or blow the horn.
"I'm a little perplexed about how it's so detrimental to Park Circle," McWhorter says of the plan.
It may be because residents don't have to hear the horn to see the train coming at them.
Over the past decade, the Park Circle community in North Charleston has thrived. East Montague has seen the return of shops and restaurants, like EVO Pizza and Madra Rua Irish Pub. And the award-winning Oak Terrace Preserve development nearby continues to grow, despite the weak housing market. The Charleston County School District recently completed work on the shared Academic Magnet and School of the Arts campus. Currently, more than 1,000 of those high school students journey over the rail lines that are expected to see more use.
A young working class has begun to settle in the area, and Summey sees the new train traffic as a direct threat to all of this growth. "We've had hundreds of private sector folks, a lot of those are young couples, who have invested in that community because of the guarantee there would be no additional rail. Those investments are at stake," Summey says. "And we're not talking about the current rail that's going through there. We're talking about the additional rail."
How much additional rail is hard to quantify. Norfolk Southern will run one train in and out on most days — meaning two additional trains per day. At least at first. "Many, many years down the road it may grow," McWhorter says. "Who knows what the traffic will be then."
However, many, many years from now could actually be few, few. The Commerce Department's own conceptual plan notes a "proposed auto terminal" for BMW at the new port site, which would likely put two additional daily train trips on those tracks each day. And the route will likely get more use as the Charleston Port's container business grows. Rail use is also getting more attention as a green alternative to putting trucks on the roadways.
The Department of Commerce recognizes that North Rhett in particular will be a problem area, but engineers have deemed an overpass to be an unlikely scenario because of the crossing's proximity to Interstate 526. Taylor says the department is committed to finding a solution — they just haven't found it yet.
The whole situation has North Charleston realtor and Greater Park Circle Film Society Executive Director James Sears shaking his head at all the work done in the Park Circle community. "You can do as much work as you want to do, but when the state makes a decision, to hell with you," Sears says.
Going to Fight
"From a legal standpoint, I don't know how we're going to fight it, but we're going to fight it," says Mayor Summey, noting it will be a long, expensive battle. The city has a team of more than a half-dozen lawyers examining various legal actions, says lead attorney Brady Hair. "We're going to fight it on every level that we possibly can," he says.
Concessions that the Commerce Department has offered to the city don't faze the mayor, including things like the proposed North Charleston museum.
"A museum to what?" Summey asks. "A museum to rail?"
The city has laid the groundwork for its argument against the proposal. The land for the rail yard was deeded to Clemson for the school's use. Now that Public Railways wants it, the city has informed the school it will use a clause in the deed to take it back. The city has already been notified of three other properties the state wants to condemn for its rail plan, including the fire station that provides service to existing Navy Yard businesses.
"They can come and try to kick us out. We're not going anywhere," Summey says. "I've got to provide fire protection."
The crux of the city's argument is an agreement made between Summey and leaders at the State Ports Authority in 2002 after the legislature told both parties they had to work out a deal. The city agreed to allow the port site in exchange for assurances from the State Ports Authority that the new terminal would have "rail access exclusively from the south end."
The Department of Commerce is threading a needle on that point. The state is using the planned port terminal as the primary selling point for the new rail yard, but the port won't be directly serviced by rail. Containers will instead be dragged off the property by a tractor and then placed on rail cars at the new rail yard.
Summey says it makes no difference — the agreement was no northern rail. "The state is the state is the state," he says.
The mayor notes that the city has invested millions in revitalization projects that could be threatened by the new rail yard, including the purchase of the unused Shipwatch Square, as well as streetscaping on Montague Avenue and infrastructure improvements at Oak Terrace Preserve.
"We believe the state of South Carolina has not only lied to the City of North Charleston, but to the people of the City of North Charleston," Summey says, before turning his attention back to the Navy Yard property at the center of the state's land grab. "They're taking away an opportunity that could be as great as Boeing and BMW."
It's ironic that state leaders have worked for more than a decade to bring the right of self-determination to the people of James Island, but now they stand in the way of North Charleston's effort to plot its own course. Mayor Summey says the city's plight should be a wake-up call to every municipality in the state, but he's more interested in the silence from Columbia.
"Where are our local legislators? When are they going to stand up and say what's right and what's wrong? They're supposed to represent our interests," Summey says. "One of the things that needs to be shown is that this is not a unanimous decision by the legislature."
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, says he'll hold hearings on the state's rail plan in the coming weeks, but he has been a staunch supporter of the Department of Commerce in this debate. Sens. Chip Campsen and Robert Ford have offered their support to the city, but, at this point, the leadership in the legislature has been mostly silent.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, seems convinced the state won't be able to address Mayor Keith Summey's concerns. "I'm not sure there's a solution that works out and makes everybody happy," Harrell says, while noting access for both CSX and Norfolk Southern is "critical."
Senate leader Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, agrees that dual access for both companies is important, but he seems much more interested in finding a solution that could work for the city.
"I would hope it's not the intent of the state, and I don't think it is, to run over the City of North Charleston," McConnell says. "I think we have to be respectful of issues there."
The senator held out hope for a solution by resolving one difference in the two proposed rail plans offered by the state and CSX: the Stromboli corridor. In the CSX plan, endorsed by the city, largely industrial Stromboli Avenue would have provided a new cut-through for train traffic. The city had planned to pursue federal grants for the 40 acres along the road. The state plan eliminated that new track, and leaders at the Department of Commerce and S.C. Public Railways have actually tried to use that as a selling point — arguing the new track would divide two communities. For the record, Stromboli is a large industrial wasteland that already divides two communities. McConnell sees opportunity in taking another look at the cut-through.
Summey notes the proposal worked out with CSX was about finding a solution for the rail problem that didn't, as McConnell put it, "run over" North Charleston.
"We've always accepted our portion of industry and rail," Summey says. "We're not saying we won't work with you. We'll find a way. There's one thing we can't talk about and that's rail through the north."
And history backs Summey up. He didn't want the port on the Navy Yard in 2002, but he negotiated a deal with the state. This time Summey has only one demand — rail from the south, period. So, it's not quite hell no. It's more like not there.