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County Council, November 14

Concern about Development Master Plan for 995 Morrison Drive
CRDA seeks to heal division
Warwick Jones

Last night’s Committee meetings were a marathon session of over three hours. Whether because of fatigue or other commitments, two Council members sneaked out (OK, left) before the end. And what is irritating, it turns out that much of the time spent was unnecessary.

The last item of the Finance Committee agenda was the “995 Morrison Drive Master Plan”. The property is owned by the County and is within the City of Charleston. It has lay dormant for years, housing the Magistrates’ Courts and the Disabilities Board. But it got attention when the County was approached by a developer seeking to buy it and more attention when the City of Charleston unilaterally rezoned it. It is also within the City’s Hi tech Corridor. In a sense the property has been in play for a year or so but we were stunned to see the conceptual plans for the development of the property, drawn up by architects, Cummings and McCrady. The plans were presented last night and their conceptual nature was highlighted.

There were 3 plans that each called for 6 office/commercial buildings around the periphery of the site and a parking garage in the center. Virtually the whole 8 acres would be built out. In Plan A1, the commercial buildings were 5 stories (792,250 sq.ft.) and in Plan A3, 14 stories (2.2 million sq.ft.). Plan A2 was similar to A1 except there were some architectural enhancements. The parking garage in Plan A1 would be 8 levels and in A3, 21 levels with space for 3778 cars!

The potential scale of the development was a surprise to us. And a 21 level parking garage? Where did all of this come from? Had I missed a meeting?

And then there was the presentation on financing which provided some enlightenment but little comfort. For the County, the emphasis would be on the provision of the parking garage. Staff assumed that the County would sell the land for commercial space to developers but retain sufficient to build the garage. The cost of the garage in the A2 plan was estimated at $31 million. Considering there were nearly another 200 spaces in the A1 Plan, the cost of the garage in this Plan presumably would have been about $36 million. And the cost of the garage in Plan A3? Probably $70 million or so.

Staff noted that the garage in the A2 Plan (and presumably others) would be financed with a bond issue. Projected revenues from the garage would not be sufficient to cover interest and amortization over the 20 year life of the life of the bond.

There were a lot of questions for staff and we won’t attempt to cover them – considering what ensued, it would be a waste of time, we think. At the conclusion of the discussion, Council member Schweers declared that he was not prepared to vote on the Plans. He was non-plussed how the project had developed so far. He could not recall any discussion on Council or approval to sell the property or parts of it. His thoughts were echoed by others. Council member Qualey suggested that the land was very valuable and there was merit in deferring all plans. Council member Rawl thought that Council had not defined the parameters of the project and it needed to do this before considering a Request for Proposals.

We confess to weariness at the end of the meeting but it seems staff is tasked to go back to the drawing board, and consult widely with interested parties and in particular, Ernest Andrade who heads the City’s Digital Corridor effort. And it was nice to know that if I missed a meeting of the Committee, it was missed by its members. Wow, 14 story buildings on Morrison Drive and maybe a 21 level parking garage? So many questions!!

Representatives of the Charleston Regional Development Alliance (CRDA) were before the Committee last night. They were there to heal the division that had occurred earlier this year between it and some of its members, mainly the County. There were issues over costs, management and the division of responsibility between the municipalities, the Counties and the CRDA. Charleston County contributed $490,000 last year, but this year has withheld its full payment.

Ms. Anita Zucker, Charleston’s best known philanthropist, was the principal speaker for the group. She will assume the Chair on July 1 next year. She spoke of the importance of the CRDA and its role in securing investment in the region. She noted that there had been extensive discussion between the members, and one meeting hosted by the state Department of Commerce. In consequence, changes in the numbers and structure of the both the Board and Executive Committee were planned. The Tri State Counties would each have 2 members on the Executive Committee of which one would be an elected official. She also said that the role of the CRDA and that of the Counties and municipalities would be more clearly defined. CRDA would do the marketing of the region to commercial and industrial entities. Once a “client” had chosen a site or location, the county or municipal economic development teams would assume the lead. She also noted that the Association had cut staff with an annual estimated saving of about $250,000. Overall, the presentation was similar to that given to the City of Charleston Council on the previous night.

Council member Condon seemed to be in favor of the changes, and of making an immediate payment of $120,000. We are not sure this would have made the County current on its commitment to the Alliance. But she and others also wanted to hear from Steve Dykes, the head of the County’s Economic Development team before they signed off on the CRDA proposal. What did he think of the proposal?

Some Council members seemed to hope that Mr.Dykes would speak publicly. Fortunately, the Committee voted to go into executive session for we suspect he had some concerns. Members looked solemn when they returned to the chamber after an hour long session. And after announcing that no decision was made in the session, the Chair told Ms. Zucker that he would contact her tomorrow. Clearly, there are lingering issues. How serious they are and how the CRDA will address them, we do not know.

Staff gave a presentation on the plans for the construction and renovation of libraries. It follows on the recent referendum approving a bond issue to finance the program, estimated to cost over $100 million. We think the presentation revealed little more than that given to the Committee some months ago. The County has sent us a copy but it is in DAT format and refuses to be opened in a Mac computer. Sorry. We suspect there was more definition of timing of construction but not much else that was new. Staff said that the millage rate in the Debt Service Fund would rise firstly by 2.8 and finally by 4.5. But Council may choose to raise the millage rate immediately allowing the increase to fall below the anticipated 4.5 by the time spending gets under way.

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