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Developers present plans for Ansonborough Field

A supermarket is proposed opposite the Aquarium
Warwick Jones

There are three finalists in the bidding to develop Ansonborough Field. Each gave presentations and a description of what they planned for the Field to a panel that consisted of City staff, the Mayor and some council members. No details relating to costs were discussed in the public part of the session though undoubtedly they were discussed in the executive sessions.

An interesting idea
In terms of overall appearance, we liked least the plans of East West Cumberland Park Associates (EWCPA) . The group included the developers of Vendue Range of which Mr. Walter Seisheimer was a principal. But although we are critical of the appearance of its proposed development, the group came up with a very interesting idea. It proposed a structure be placed on the site of the planned African American Museum in which a major super market (WholeFoods?) would be located as well as commercial space.The group proposed that the Museum be located on Ansonborough Field - on Calhoun Street and next to the railway line.

A spokesman for the group stated that the existing retail operations surrounding the Aquarium were risky. What the area needed was constant activity. This was not going to be provided by a museum. A retailer operating 7 days a week and the best part of a day and evening would draw people and bring activity to a needed level. Beside, with the parking garage abutting the development and the large residential community planned for the Field, a large food retailer was a good idea. All speakers for the group beat the same drum, and it was not a discordant sound to those of us that were listening.

But was the idea out of line?
Mr. Michael Maher of the Civic Design Center raised the obvious. The suggestion to take over the African American museum site was not on the table when bids were called. Did the group have a plan and submission that dealt with the "pro forma" request? Yes, they did and they spoke to it, but barely. And we would ask that if the panel and City consider the idea of moving the location of the museum and allow a structure to include a supermarket on the site, shouldn't the other developers be allowed to re submit bids? After all, they did not countenance such latitude in the bid process.

There are a lot of questions that could be asked about the proposed relocation of the museum and its replacement with a structure to contain a supermarket. We won't attempt to raise them, let alone answer them. But the idea should generate considerable discussion.

Many similarities in proposals by other bidders
The other two groups that made presentations were Wood Partners and Estates Properties . Broadly, their proposals were similar and indeed given the direction from the City, should have been. All bidders were instructed to provide for some affordable housing though we expect that the City was looking for more than the 15% to 20% of all housing units that the developers proposed. They also had to consider a hotel and commercial space. The development was to be confined to the northern and southern ends of the Field with the center portion left as a park. And the City hoped and expected that the developer would pay a sizable amount to the City for being allowed to undertake the development.

Not all the developers revealed the overall size of what they proposed and indeed there were some discrepancies in the presentations. But overall, it seems the development is in the order of 350,000 to 400,000 sq. ft. Whether this includes parking on the ground floor we do not know. But even if it were included, the development is large, and very large by Charleston standards.

Wood Partner's design appealed to us
All the developers said that they planned to us brick, real stucco and quality materials. They all talked of views, vistas, pathways, access stairways etc. Designing a massive building must be formidable and in our view, the proposal of Wood Partners looked best. From what we were told, it was probably the highest cost development, at least on a square footage basis. The developer seemed to break up the continuous and potentially monotonous lines of the buildings with stairways and protrusions (whatever the architectural term might be) Estates Properties did the same and the roofline was capped occasionally with "v" shaped roofs over lofts. The external appearance of the buildings proposed by EWCPA was not impressive. Whether this reflects what it planned, or lack of detail in its presentation, we do not know. But although it talked of bricks and stucco, the drawings seemed to suggest glass and steel. May be the group planned on revisiting the plans if and when it was successful in its bid.

Still an every-town-USA look
We note that Estates Properties is completing condominium units at 33 Calhoun Street, opposite Ansonborough Field. It is also building units on George Street. The buildings proposed by Estates Properties and Wood Partners are not so different from these, though those on Ansonborough Field will have more variation and detail. Undoubtedly, these things will contribute to a better appearance. But despite the frequent insertion in the presentations today of pictures of structures, parks and fountains in France and Italy, and references to attempted emulation, the structures proposed by all developers remain distinctly "every-town-USA" in character.

Affordable housing 15% to 20% of all housing units
There were certainly differences in the proposals and some that were telling. Wood Partners planned 167 housing units while the other developers planned about 200 units. But Wood Partners said that the market and affordable housing units would be identical, inside and out. Not only would they be identical but they would be mixed throughout with no way to tell the difference. But 15% of all housing would be affordable housing compared with 20% planned by the other developers. We read this as taking the City at its word. Wood Partners wanted excellence and if affordable housing was to be included, it should not differ in any way to other housing. Considering affordable housing will be sold or rented at below-market rates, and very likely below cost, the higher the proportion of affordable housing units, the lower the profits of the project. It would seem that Wood Partners has decided to opt for quality affordable housing units and provide less of them than the other developers. Both the other developers conceded there would be differences in the quality and that to some extent at least, the affordable units would be segregated.

Only one hotel, not two as the City suggested
There were some strong similarities of the plans as well. Each developer proposed only 1 hotel, and not 2 that was suggested by the City. It seems the developers felt that 2 hotels were not feasible in the light of the expansion of existing hotels, and the likely new hotels on the Peninsula. In the plans of each developer, the 50 room hotel was placed on the corner of Calhoun and Concord Streets, close to the Aquarium. Each developer proposed there be 2 structures at the southern end of the Field and dedicated to housing. In the proposal of EWCPA these structures would contain all of the affordable housing units. There were no commercial facilities proposed for these structures.

Units construction cost likely to be high,
There was a couple of other eyebrow raising comments. According to EWCPA, the average cost of an affordable housing unit was $240,000. With an estimated average size of about 1000 sq. feet, the cost of construction we estimate at about $240 a sq ft. Allowing for rounding errors on our part on our part, the cost of construction would still exceed $200 a sq. foot. This is not a cost that is conducive normally to affordable housing.

Big subsidy for affordable housing buyers
Wood Partners also hinted at the massive subsidy. It said that its affordable housing ranged from 1-bedroom 1-bath units to 3-bedroom and 2-bath units. The sale prices would be about $145,000 and $330,000 respectively. The market value of these apartments was estimated at $452,000 and $847,000 respectively. Even at the lower prices, we marvel how they can be described as affordable when set against wage and salary levels in South Carolina. As all of the developers said, they are basing the rents on 60% to 120% of median family income and in the case of "for sale" affordable apartments, up to 150% of the median income.

Payment to City remains unknown
At this stage, we have no knowledge of probably the most important detail - what the developer will give back to the City in term of cash. And we will not even hazard a guess. But we will speculate that the overall cost of the projects could be upwards of $70 million and the profitability will depend to a large extent on the ability to sell the "market rate" condominium units. Considering the risk to the developer if the condo market should sour, we don't expect the developers to be too generous in their hand out to the City, particularly as they have to bear the burden of affordable housing units.