A rising cost of housing which outstrips local wages and the declining quantity and quality of public transit has created a crisis for people living and working in the Charleston area. Hard working people whose skills are essential to our economy now live lives shredded by distance and long, slow commutes. Their capacity to contribute to our communities, enjoy life and take care of their families continues to deteriorate. The Bus Rapid Transit Line now being planned to link Rivers Ave to Summerville and Charleston presents our last opportunity to create the sort of diverse, rewarding walking community in North Charleston. Such a place would connect the opportunities for work, shopping, citizenship, education and culture people in Charleston used to possess a generation ago before gentrification and tourism appropriated our quality of life. The best place to build such a community is in and around the Old Navy Hospital site now owned by Charleston County.
14 acres of publicly-owned open ground surround the Old Navy Hospital. More is in private ownership across Rivers Ave. at the former location of Ship Watch Square and to the north at the site of the disused K-Mart property. The Cooper River Branch of the Charleston County Library is already set to be replaced with an improved structure in this area. A hotel and cluster of community businesses is already in the area, ready for customers. Reynolds Ave. just to the south is remaking itself as a community business district now. To the east, Spruill Ave. is reviving. All of this is centered around the Rivers Ave. and McMillian Bus Rapid Transit Station. This area already has the best public transit in the region with over seven CARTA bus lines converging at Superstop, including the critical #10 Rivers Ave. Bus line, CARTA’s busiest route, the #11 Dorchester Airport and the Northbridge Bus line to West Ashley. The available area is large enough to create an economically diverse community with significant parts of affordable housing.
Plans for the development of this area have started and stalled repeatedly over the past 20 years. Ideas were promoted following the decision to close the navy base in the 1990s. Owners of the Old Navy Hospital developed a plan for the area a few years ago. The City of North Charleston is working on plans for the area now. However, without strong public support and participation, one effort after another has gone nowhere. The disastrous failure of planning and execution at the Old Navy Hospital has cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
Thirty years ago, many people in Charleston could find affordable housing on a good bus line in an area often within walkable distance of work, shopping and church Downtown or in North Charleston. Before rising congestion forced bus routes to be rescheduled to slower operation, bus trips on SCE&G and CARTA in its early days were fairly fast. Today, much of our affordable housing in these areas is being lost to gentrification and residents are being forced to more remote areas with slow or no transit. When transit service stops early in the evenings, access to opportunities to participate in educational, social or church activities is lost. The rich, shared lives which sustained our community and economy have slipped way to sprawl and isolation. One third of the cost of the new apartment buildings downtown is devoted to the cost of parking structures which will put cars on streets which can’t handle more traffic.
Around the intersection of McMillian and Rivers Avenues, we can build a dense, walkable community which provides affordable housing and profit for private landowners. We can make automobile ownership optional for many of the people living there and shed the huge costs of parking structures that comes with it. A resident will be able to live there and walk to a fast, reliable transit system which can take them to work downtown or in Summerville in under 30 minutes that won’t be mired in gridlocked traffic as our CARTA buses are now. A trip to Trident Tech will be possible in under 15 minutes. We have already voted to build that transit system; planning for it began with a $4.7 million appropriation for design and environmental study in October of 2018.
However, changing the auto centric focus of land use planning for this irreplaceable location takes strong political will. For over 50 years, the Lowcountry has put the needs of tourists and automobiles first. We need a plan which brings private owners, County Government and the City of N. Charleston together to build a new, urban center to restore some of what local people have lost to the rise of sprawl, tourism and gentrification. Some of those plans have already been made and need to be brought out of the closet and unrolled for public discussion. Others need to be made from scratch. We would be building on the already well understood concepts for transit-oriented development which have been helping create rewarding people focused communities around the world.
This will not be the option for everyone. I recognize that many people value their automobiles highly and want a large yard and a detached single family dwelling. Those options will continue to exist in our region. Housing of that type for over 200,000 people has already been approved and will be built here in the next 20 years. For the people choosing to live in places like that, this plan offers less traffic congestion and conserves precious road capacity.
I am calling on local leaders to meet with me this fall to bring this planning and the people it will impact together. I’ve already spoken and met with many of you. However we need to gather, empower each other and build the power to create something truly great in a community which has been forced to accept second rate, dysfunctional solutions in the past. We can’t simply sell off the old Navy Hospital property to the highest bidder without a plan. We need a safe, comfortable and efficient transit station at the center of a great, walkable community built, as old North Charleston and Charleston once were, around people, not parking.
I look forward to working with you, your church, your community and your organization to help make this happen.
Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, Esq.