Lead. Follow, or Get Out of the Way

West Ashley revitalization efforts gaining steam

County Councilman Vic Rawl is hopeful the I-526 extention will finally be completedCounty Councilman Vic Rawl is hopeful the I-526 extention will finally be completed

February 9, 2017
By Bill Davis | News Editor

Last week, Charleston County Council chairman Vic Rawl took a big half-step to complete Interstate 526 and breathe more life into West Ashley.

This could signal the beginning, in earnest … finally … of revitalization effort in West Ashley, as a host of other pressing issues also took steps forward recently.

Rawl, who represents West Ashley on council, pushed through an ordinance that reestablishes the county’s commitment to finishing the beleaguered inner-loop highway.

The ordinance is a “half-step” because so much is still unknown about the full project, like how much it will cost, or whether the county join with the state and feds to pay for full completion or settle for building it in sections.

“At this point, figuring out how much it will cost would be speculating on speculation,” said Rawl, who puts an optimistic timeline of at least four years before construction could begin.

Before then, he said he’d like more traffic studies commissioned to determine how a completed I-526 would “ripple out” throughout the Charleston area.

First, he specifically wants to know how completion would impact the morning commute “chokepoint” at Main Road and U.S. Hwy. 17. Whether those drivers headed downtown or onto 526 could affect the project.

Supporters of the ordinance hope that Rawl’s move will open doors with the State Infrastructure Bank and powerful state Sen. Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence) that were slammed shut under his predecessor’s tenure.

Last fall, former chairman Elliot Summey was reportedly heard on tape playing both sides of the completion battle, including calling Leatherman, chair of the Finance Committee and president of the Senate a “tyrant.”

Earlier last year, the infrastructure bank removed its funding commitment because the county did not submit a plan to handle financing.

Rawl said Friday that his goal was to take everything about 526 that had gotten out of whack and get it back “in whack.”

With the passing of an additional half-cent sales tax last year, the county will have more money to potentially put toward the project. Preliminary cost projections put the elevated road linking West Ashley and the Connector on James Island at north of $700 million.

Locally, Rawl and the rest of council are still facing a daunting task, as there will likely be several years of studies, protests, permitting, lawsuits, and “tweaking” before a final plan and cost can be established.

Council’s task won’t get any easier in Columbia, where the state legislature is struggling how to fund the state’s poor roads and infrastructure system.

Whether and how much the state is still willing to buy into completing 526 will depend on how the General Assembly decides to finally address issues like a potential gas tax increase, and the like.

How completing 526 fits into that dynamic is at this time anybody’s guess.

Other potentially revitalizing efforts gained traction recently. It was reported that Citadel Mall was under contract by a buyer, with rumors rampant as to their identity.

Mandi Herring Bello, the city’s West Ashley specific planning officer, said there were confidentiality agreements in place to protect the identity of the potential buyer until the sale is completed.

In 2013, the mall was foreclosed on after its owners had fallen behind on the $75 million loan they took out to purchase the 1.1-million square foot facility, and the emptying mall reportedly took a $20-million reduction in valuation that year.

Local commercial real estate broker John Orr said that the mall still has a major hurdle to  scale in that the anchor tenants, Belk and the like, own their “pads.” That means that what’s for sale is actually the long store-filled hallways between them.

“What that means is that it’s not the bricks that are for sale, but the mortar in between; and that’s expensive mortar.

But 526 efforts could improve the value and viability of the mall, some hope.

Citadel Mall had been a major focus of Mayor John Tecklenburg, a commercial real estate broker before taking office. Last year, he christened the West Ashley Revitalization Commission, handing the reins to City Councilman Peter Shahid, and fighting for a special tax zone for the Sam Rittenberg Boulevard commercial corridor to help fund aligned projects.

Planner Bello said city officials and stakeholders were excited to see all of their hard work beginning to come to fruition. She said next up this week would be a presentation by the consultants hired to craft a West Ashley master plan.

In other good news. Whole Foods released that it planned to open their new 45,000-square-foot West Ashley store in September next door to IGA Doscher’s on Savannah Highway. The company also posted plans for a restaurant to front along its road-front, and nail salon tucked in between the two groceries.

Demolition will begin soon on existing buildings on the site.

A few miles away, shovels hit the dirt as ground was broken on the new municipal West Ashley senior center on the campus of Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital along a road that bears the name of the mayor’s father.

City Councilman Bill Moody said that the revitalization “snowball has begun rolling, and it’s going to be getting bigger and moving faster.”

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