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City Council Meeting November 23

Another step in the development of the Neck area
Marc Knapp who covers City Council

Council moved further last night towards development of the Neck Area. First reading was given to an ordinance to establish the Charleston Neck Redevelopment Project area and a plan for spending and financing. A public hearing was also set for December 22.

The council has discussed broad plans for the development at previous meetings. Last night, it moved to define a "blighted" area that would fall under a Tax Increment Financing Law. This would allow the City to raise funds by borrowings to finance improvements in the area, essentially related to infrastructure. The TIF area is essentially the whole of the Neck, stretching from the City of North Charleston boundary to north and Romney and Mount Pleasant Streets to the south. Excluded from it for the purposes of the TIF are cemeteries, marshlands and the Rhodia property. The TIF area encompasses 1347 acres or 2% of total city property. It is largely comprised of industrial and commercial areas with some small residential developments. There are 30 brownfield sites in the area which require cleaning. A survey in 2003 found that 65% of the buildings in the area were "deficient, deteriorating or dilapidated".

The City expects to incur about $58 million in indebtedness to implement the redevelopment plan. The current assessed value of the Redevelopment Project area is $86 million but on completion of the redevelopment projects, the equalized assessed valuation is estimated at $290 million. This obviously represents a lot of potential increased tax revenue. Redevelopment project costs are estimated at $117 million and the duration of the plan is set at 25 years. Apart from borrowings, the City expect to draw funds to finance the plan from HUD, economic development grants and local, state, and federal transportation funds.

Funds will be used to:
• Improved sidewalks and streets.
• Create a fixed guide way transit corridor connecting downtown Charleston and North Charleston.
• Create new primary transit stops for public transit riders.
• Improve street drainage.
• Create a complete grid of streets.
• Improve I 26 and create access to it. It was also possible that the interstate would be moved .
• Add bike paths along King and Meeting Streets.
• Relocate the City's Public Works facility.
• Create more parks.
• Finance design, acquire land for schools and other civic uses.

There was general agreement amongst the council members of the virtues of the Neck development. Council member Gilliard however was concerned about Rhodia and asked that the City meet with the company to ensure that the company was mindful of the residential developments that were likely to occur. He reminded council that an accident in Rhodia some year ago had caused a number of deaths at the plant. Council voted for the adoption of the ordinance with only one member in opposition.

Council gives nod and support to new law school
Council approved the sale of City property to the new law school proposed for lower Meeting Street. But it was not a total endorsement. All members thought that the new school was a good thing for the community but some council members were concerned that the terms of the land sale were too favorable. After all the school will be a "for- profit" concern.

The issue before the council was the sale of a lot on the corner of Meeting and Wolfe Street. The city paid $1.17 million for it when it was angling to draw the new College of Charleston basket ball arena to the area. This plan fell through when the College decided to place the arena next to its existing basket ball facilities. The City is proposing to sell the lot to the school for $875,000. The consideration will be paid over a 10 year period and bear a low rate of interest.

Council member Robert George questioned the Mayor as to the price and also as to what would happen if the School were to fail or to sell the land. As he read the ordinance, there was not enough recourse available to the City and he made some proposals to rectify this.

The Mayor responded that the School had options to set up elsewhere and the City needed to give it incentive. He said that the present value of the land in his opinion was close to the price the City paid for the land. He also said that he thought there was little chance that the school would fail but there were provisions written into the sales contract that would protect the City.

The Mayor also spoke of the likely success of the new school. It originally expected enrolment of about 440 students but was now looking to 660 students. Tuition would amount to $25,000 a year for full time students but evening courses would also be available. A spokesman for the school also said there would be scholarships provide as well.

Councilmember Kwadjo Campbell, who represent the Eastside voiced some concern about the development and made some comparisons between it and the C of C basket ball arena proposal of some years ago. He said that the Eastside community had not been involved in discussions with the school and he suggested a charrette be held so the community and the school could engage in discussion.

Councilmember Campbell has a point. The school, with over 600 students will make a mark on the community. It my look to acquire more property adjacent to its present site for class rooms or dormitories. The school should have a beneficial economic impact on the Eastside community but as with other developments, it could lead to the displacement of residents, though not necessarily because of property condemnation. Some, perhaps many students may want to live close to the school and will look to renting or buying nearby properties. This may be beneficial in that it will lead to renovation or new construction. But it could accelerate the gentrification that is already occurring in the district. Councilmember Campbell may also feel that the Eastside, at least around the school will begin to look like a dormitory, similar to some areas around the College of Charleston. But entrants to the Law School will be already have graduated from colleges so hopefully, they will be more mature than typical undergraduates.

And as to whether the price paid for the land was appropriate, we don't know. But looking at the school's potential revenue, it certainly could pay more. Assuming 600 students pay $25,000 a year for tuition, annual revenue would amount to $15 million. With say 60 faculty members earning $100,000 each, tuition costs would be $6 million. This leaves $9 million for everything else. We think "everything else" will be easily satisfied

Extortion by the City?
I know the City is always crying out for funds, but some means of raising them seems close to extortion. Take the efforts of SCE& G to run cables under the Cooper River from the City to Mount Pleasant. To place these cables, it had to drill a hole using directional drill means and case the ensuing hole. Cables already link Mount Pleasant and the City via the Cooper River Bridge but a second conduit is necessary for back up.

SCE& G has been drilling from a location on Charlotte Street, not far from the Aquarium. Yes, drilling did cause parts of the road to be temporarily covered with mud but the mess was not permanent nor was it damaging. But the City wants SCE& G to pay it $1 million for the privilege of using the street to drill. Further, it wants Charlotte Street to be repaved and replenished, a cost that SCE&G estimates at close to another $1 million. Charlotte Street was an eye sore before SCE& G arrived but the City wants the utility to pay for something that is largely the City's responsibility.

So in effect, SCE&G is being charged $2 million for attempting to be a responsible utility. It may have the ability to pay this amount, but it has the right to feel indignant and to make it up in your utility bill.