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Decades later, East Side finally getting promised affordable housing

By Post and Courier, Abigail Darlington Aug 20, 2017
When the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge opened more than a decade ago, residents of downtown Charleston's East Side neighborhood were promised housing developments and businesses would soon replace the old Cooper River bridge ramps that had separated their community since the 1960s. 

The bridge remnants were removed, leaving huge swaths of vacant land between Meeting, Lee, Cooper and East Bay streets. And despite all the visions to reknit the community, the only thing that's sprouted there since is the sea of grass symbolizing the dividing line between the lower and upper portions of the East Side.

Setbacks came primarily with the Great Recession, as well as some drawn-out bureaucratic processes to divvy up the land. But with those hurdles now cleared, the city of Charleston is finally making progress on its long-held development plans, with some changes.
Affordable housing will dominate the 8-acre property in the form of multi-family buildings. The land covenant prevents single-family homes from being rebuilt there, according to City Planner Jacob Lindsey, but the apartment-style homes will inject much-needed affordability to an area that's seen rising housing prices for several years.

Across 4 acres from Meeting to Aiken streets, close to 300 housing units will be built, and roughly half will be priced below market rates.

Earlier this year, the city transferred 1.4 acres to the Charleston Housing Authority to build an affordable housing complex with 64 units, aimed at residents of various ages and income levels. The authority has already presented plans to the Technical Review Committee.

The city also is in the final steps of its selection process for a private developer interested in building a mix of market-rate and affordable housing on the other large parcels, about 2.5 acres combined on the blocks between Nassau and Aiken streets.
Geona Shaw Johnson, director of the Housing and Community Development Department, said the plan calls for about 200 units, half of which would be affordable. She said there needs to be market-rate units there to generate enough income to offset the cost of the units with lower rents.

All the housing projects will include some ownership opportunities, Lindsey said.

"We will be working with the architects and builders in order to help make wonderful new structures that have a sense of ownership and a sense of place," he said. "I think that’s very important for us."

Another idea that could help facilitate a more neighborly environment is a proposed bike and pedestrian path along Lee Street to connect the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge path from East Bay Street to the future Lowline, which is envisioned for the former rail line about a block to the west across Meeting Street. 

An underground stormwater easement exists on much of that property abutting Lee Street, which prevents it from being developed.

"We couldn’t build on this thing otherwise," Lindsey said. "So we thought, why don’t we put a great park-like experience there?"

Other concepts haven't made as much headway.
New businesses are no longer a big part of the vision, although a privately owned parcel facing Meeting Street is slated to become a boutique hotel. Its owner, Sanju Patel, presented plans to the Technical Review Committee in 2015, but it hasn't gone any further in the city's approvals process. 

In May, the city transferred a 0.4-acre parcel at the corner of America and Lee streets to South Carolina State University for its long-stalled community education center. City spokesman Jack O'Toole said school officials held an informal meeting with city staff to discuss a site plan in July, but no formal plans have been submitted for it yet. 

Four other city-owned parcels near Morrison Drive totaling about 3.7 acres are being used for parking, and there are no firm plans at this point about how they'll be used in the future, Lindsey said.

The question on some residents' minds is whether the overall project will be enough to bring a sense of community back to an area that's been a no-man's land for decades, in the center of a neighborhood that's already experienced so many changes in the past few years.

Elizabeth Jenkins, president of the East Central Neighborhood Council, said she thinks it's a positive step that the Housing Authority's project will offer low-income housing to seniors. But she's skeptical that other rental units will be enough to address the need for affordable housing in the area.

"My question is, affordable to whom?" she said.

Loquita Jenkins, president of the North Central Neighborhood Association, said she thinks the city is doing the right thing by using most of the former bridge property for housing. Still, she's disappointed it has to be multi-family.

"I think single-family dwelling homes are better suited for community connections," she said. "A structure like an apartment complex really isn't as conducive to human connectivity."
Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.


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A message from our President/Chief Executive Officer:

The Housing Authority of the City of Charleston was born of action on December 18, 1934 by a vote of the Charleston City Council. However, the actual permission for such a "creation" came via statute in the South Carolina General Assembly in March of 1934.

We have come a long way in our society, our City and our personal relationships. Nevertheless, the need for Public housing still exists today. We have so much more to do before we can truly say, the job is done.

Donald J. Cameron
President/Chief Executive Officer
Housing Authority of the City of Charleston