FEATURE ‌ Philosophical Shift 

Downtown infill development spawns 14 more affordable housing units

When Civitas first started talking up Morris Square, its downtown urban infill condo development located a block off Rutledge Avenue on Morris Street, the project was hailed as an innovative plan that would combine high-end condo living with affordable housing.

The 64-unit development could help Charleston join other cities in the national vanguard of urban redevelopment because of its egalitarian design. But the deal putting together Morris Square's footprint was so complicated that it took the assistance of both City Hall and the shepherding of Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. to pull it off.

City Hall had to cede a downtown park of its own to get the deal done. It also had to convince a black congregation to sell their church's land to the urban design group developing the project, Civitas, which has since been reborn as The I'On Group.

The development company also had to purchase a rundown, fenced-in square bordering Morris and Marion streets that had become overrun with weeds, Frisbee-catching dogs, and their fecal matter.

But the upside of the complicated deal was huge.

I'On Group has promised to return two enlivened parks — not one lonely park replete with aging and little used playground equipment — to the civic realm. It also promised to work on alleviating the neighborhood's atrocious drainage problems, while staying committed to good design principles and using the best building materials it could get its hands on, just like it does at its award-winning I'On development in Mt. Pleasant.

These days, the development is abuzz with activity. Workers scurry about, making sure the not-yet-completed condo buildings will resemble the gorgeous palaces rendered on the development's website. Given today's real estate market, many of the units will certainly fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not over a million in a few cases, on the open market.

But a subtle change had been made before the first phase of buildings has been completed, one that could signal a philosophical shift in how the City handles future infill projects.

Morris Square was supposed to include six affordable housing units, roughly one-tenth of its total number of units. But last September, another deal was brokered between the City and the development's partners after problems emerged with the Episcopal Diocese Community Housing Development Organization.

The "CHODO," as it's more commonly called, was brought into the deal to construct the three units in the development's first phase, and two more in its second. But it was proving far too cumbersome to have two general contractors working on the same site at the same time. Making matters more difficult, the first three units were to reside between and betwixt the other units, so differing construction crews would be literally crossing paths all day.

So, according to Agnew — who has since left his position with I'On to form his own development firm, Civic Square — the I'On Group hit on a novel idea: take over the construction, convert the affordable housing slots to high-end ones, and buy out the CHODO's share for a handsome price, allowing it to construct/renovate more units elsewhere.

Riley championed the deal, the CHODO backed it, and City Council voted unanimously for it.

In the end, the $900,000-$950,000 the company will give the CHODO was enough to qualify the diocese's affordable housing outreach effort for an additional $200,000 in federal grants, giving it the ability to create 14 separate units — 10 on the peninsula south of Battery Street, with four more to the north in The Neck.

On first glance, this second deal appears to be a no-brainer, with 11 more affordable housing units popping up as a result — increasing the number from six to 17, including the three units still slated for Morris Square.

But the new deal also begs the question: has City Hall changed the way it thinks about infill projects on the land-strapped, high-priced peninsula?

Did the deal signal to other developers, ones perhaps not as known for their sensitivity to issues like community and their sense of the republic as I'On and Agnew, that all they have to do is talk tough about affordable housing up front only to be let off the hook on the backside when they write a big check?

Or did it show that City Hall now considers only certain parts of the peninsula suitable for affordable housing — like the West Side or The Neck — while others — like the rapidly gentrifying Spring and Cannon streets corridor — are not?

According to City Councilman James Lewis Jr., one of the most ardent voices for affordable housing in the community, the City knows a "win-win" deal when it sees one.

"Which would be better, three or six units that would not really be 'affordable,'" asks Lewis, referencing how the buzzword can be misapplied to housing that costs over $150,000.

To Lewis, who regularly questions the mayor's commitment to the working poor, affordable housing on the peninsula is a "numbers game," where it's more important to get as many working families housed as possible than it is to hunt and peck units in pricier developments.

"We need affordable housing, but we're not going to be able to get it everywhere," says Lewis, on a rare day off from his job stocking the freezer section at the Meeting Street Piggly Wiggly.

"I'd rather see affordable housing built on America Street and on Romney Street, where the City's Board of Architectural Review and all the preservationists don't have jurisdictions and units won't cost as much as they do in historic districts, like Radcliffeborough, that's my feelings about it."

Lowcountry Housing Trust Executive director Tammie Hoy says the City should establish an across-the-board affordable housing policy for all developers wanting to work on the peninsula.

"Make it 10 percent, and make it a zoning ordinance so that it can't be taken off later on," says Hoy, whose office was created with an influx of City Hall funds. "These units are now lost, though the additional $900,000 maybe makes it a win-win situation. But we need to be looking long-term and doing something to ensure that we keep developers on the hook."

But keeping developers "on the hook" will likely become increasingly difficult as real estate prices are already high, and climbing, on the peninsula

As such, will it ever make financial sense for the City to champion affordable housing on the peninsula?

The mayor, perhaps remembering how much his decision to raze the Ansonborough Homes site after it was ravaged by Hurricane Hugo angered the black community, still seems ready to pay the extra cost to maintain as balanced a community as possible on the peninsula.

Riley is adamant that the next set of three affordable units will not be taken off the table when the second phase of Morris Square is begun.

"No, that is not a possibility — we have reached this accord and that's it," says Riley, adding that his administration has not changed its affordable housing philosophy one bit.

"If the City had [used] the $900,000 for a new fire truck, then maybe you could make that argument," says Riley. "But when you end up with 14 additional units, that's the gold standard, that's the Manhattan Prize."

To be against this deal, Riley says, "is to be against affordable housing."

Agnew, whose own phase-one unit was to have an affordable unit neighbor, says he knew the agreement would kick up some controversy. He continues to defend the project as a "model" of what developers can do to make a difference on the peninsula.

"If the deal had been three affordable units here for three affordable units there, instead of three for 14, then it could be argued that a philosophical change had been made," says Agnew, who, once his unit is ready, will look out at two existing Marion Street public housing units from his new sun deck.

Agnew, who some say is being groomed to replace Riley as mayor one day, also promises the other three units will remain untouched in the development's second phase.

Agnew also understands that if they are disturbed, moved, or shrunk, he will be on the receiving end of some very serious phone calls demanding to know what exactly is going on — not the most auspicious beginning for a mayoral campaign.


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