For more than 15 years, an old, rusted railroad track underneath the Interstate 26 overpass in downtown Charleston has been left unused.
Stubborn weeds pushed up between railroad ties along the tracks. The cacophony of cars grows year by year, zooming by far above. Giant, concrete columns hold up the interstate, casting shadows on the rail line and a well-worn walking path below — all of which run parallel to each other.
Dead-end streets line the railroad tracks and highway overpass, serving as a reminder of how the interstate’s construction in the 1960s sliced into those neighborhoods.
Now a plan is in motion to transform the old rail corridor into a public park. The Lowcountry Low Line would be a 1.7-mile, linear park running from Cortland Avenue to Woolfe Street, and possibly beyond.
The success of the project is contingent on raising millions of dollars to buy the right of way to the land from Norfolk Southern Railway before the August 2017 deadline.
Ginny Deerin, a candidate in the recent Charleston mayoral race and founder of the nonprofit Wings for Kids, is heading up the effort.
“The Low Line will be the connector down the spine of the city,” Deerin said. “Our hope — and it may be ambitious, but we think it’s doable — is to close on the property before the end of 2016,” Deerin said. “That’s really what we’re pushing hard to do.”
Deerin envisions the Low Line as a beautified commuting option for workers and students, a safe public green space and trail for residents, and a reconnection point for neighborhoods severed by the infrastructure projects.
The project faces challenges, including securing enough funding in time to buy the land, raising more money to then design and build the park, and getting developers on board with the park’s path.
Deerin said many developers see the Low Line as a benefit and want to incorporate it into their future downtown projects, but often under the pretense that the park construction will move quickly.
“That’s another reason why closing in 2016 is so important because while they want to believe it is really going to happen, do they really want to design a multimillion-dollar development around the idea that someone thinks is going to happen?” Deerin said. “That timing is really our big challenge.”
The Friends of the Lowcountry Low Line, a nonprofit board made up of community members dedicated to the park project, entered into a two-year agreement last year with Norfolk Southern to buy a right of way to the land. Federal law prevents an outright sale of it in case the railroad ever wanted to reinstall service.
The exact amount of funding needed cannot be released publicly, according to the contract. Deerin, executive director of the Friends group, said the right of way costs between $15 million and $20 million.
The Low Line group expects to use several funding sources — federal grants, city allocations and proceeds from the sale of some additional land parcels it will receive as part of the deal with the rail line. Some old warehouses, which were used to repair trains, sit adjacent to the rail spur near Line Street.
Once the land is bought, the Friends of the Lowcountry Low Line will begin a massive fundraising initiative to design and build the park. Those costs are estimated to be around $20 million.
Norfolk Southern is responsible for removing the track and flattening out the ground, according to the contract. The land will then be converted into a park and pathway.
Deerin hopes to extend the Low Line beyond Woolfe Street to Marion Square by weaving between buildings. If that is accomplished, the Low Line would be about two miles long, making it the second-largest park in the city after Hampton Park.
Planners also look to create connections to the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, Hampton Park, the Magnolia development along Upper King Street and the new Laurel Island development.
The Low Line would likely be more of a passive trail near the neighborhoods. Deerin said she sees an opportunity for a community activity — like basketball courts, interactive games for kids or picnic tables — wherever the Low Line intersects with major streets, like Huger Street.
“We want to try to knit those communities back together. We plan to work with the community for ways to do that,” Deerin said. “The park will literally connect those streets so there’s not a dead end anymore.”
The expanse of land that sits below the intersection of Interstate 26 and the Crosstown Expressway will likely be the “nexus of the Low Line” as it widens into a large, grassy field, Deerin said. The space might have a stage for performances or small concerts, an area for food trucks or events, and spaces for art installations and additional seating.
As the line moves farther into the city and closer to developments, it would likely narrow back to more of a path.
Deerin said she hopes the Low Line will become a way for people to commute to work or school without getting into their cars. The nonprofit and the Charleston Police Department are brainstorming ways to keep the pathway safe, possibly with extra lighting or a strong police presence at night.
“The real key to the safety issue is making sure there are a lot of people using it,” Deerin said. “The whole concept of eyes on the street is really the most important thing we can do to keep the park safe.”
The board has considered the park’s designs as well, like incorporating the old rail tracks, covering the concrete highway pillars with artwork, creating a sound buffer and putting up signs to point out area businesses.
“We want it to be inspiring and fun. We want it to be a place for people to recreate or stop and take a rest,” Deerin said. “The good thing about having a linear park that’s going to be two miles long is that it can be lots of different things.”
Deerin said the nonprofit wants to partner with residents, business, developers and city officials on the park designs and programs. The board plans to seek community input once they own the land.
“The park needs to be designed by everybody, so it’s really appreciated by everybody and used by everybody and they have a sense of ownership,” Deerin said.
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 3, 2016, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.