More than 60 years after the construction of Interstate 26 splintered several downtown Charleston neighborhoods, a rail-to-trail project that would reunite those streets inches closer to reality.
An abandoned Norfolk Southern rail line sits far below the concrete columns that hold up the highway. Weeds push up between the tracks, and litter has been scattered on the land around it.
Various conservationists, planners and city leaders have taken notice of the tracks over the years, hoping to replace the rusting rail line with a linear park.
The Friends of the Lowcountry Low Line group has been working for years to raise money to buy the rights to the property from the railroad and transform it into a paved pathway and city park. The 1.7-mile Lowcountry Low Line would run from Courtland Avenue to Woolfe Street.
Project leaders anticipate the Lowcountry Low Line becoming an option for commuters, a public green space and a beautified reconnection point for neighborhoods sitting on either side of the interstate.
Previous agreements have stalled out. The latest plan, reached in 2015, involved raising around $20 million to buy the land — the rail line itself and four additional parcels where the land widens around the tracks — by an August 2017 deadline.
The group planned to sell off the additional parcels to developers to underwrite the acquisition costs. But the nonprofit fell far short of the millions needed for the purchase.
A new deal reached with the city, the Friends of the Lowcountry Low Line and the railroad would see the Friends group buy the rail line and the surrounding land for $5.1 million from Norfolk Southern, forgoing the purchase of the additional parcels.
The deal moves the project toward a Dec. 4 closing date, said Winslow Hastie, board president of the Friends of the Lowcountry Low Line.
Charleston City Council agreed to split the cost with the nonprofit, with each contributing $2.55 million and ownership eventually transferring to the city. The nonprofit has raised more than half of its portion, Hastie said.
Lowering the overall cost and studying ways the Low Line could incorporate drainage elements were the crucial issues for reaching a deal and winning favor from the city, Hastie said.
“If we hadn’t taken advantage of this at this moment in time, we really think the opportunity would have been gone forever,” said Hastie, also the chief preservation officer for Historic Charleston Foundation.
Once the land is purchased, the Friends of the Lowcountry Low Line will focus on design and construction. The nonprofit plans to raise money and seek federal, state, city and grant funding. The group will solicit public feedback on plans for the park.
Norfolk Southern plans to sell the four additional parcels along the rail line, according to city and Low Line officials. The railroad did not respond to requests for comment.
Two sites along Line Street will go to private developers. The city will buy the two other sites. It plans to build a hub for the future bus rapid transit line on the parcel near Mount Pleasant, King and Meeting streets and an affordable housing development with up to 60 units on the site next to F and H streets.
Planning for both city projects is underway, said Jacob Lindsey, director of Charleston’s Planning, Preservation and Sustainability Department.
An effective public-private partnership between the city and the nonprofit is crucial for the project’s success, said Ray Weeks, a Low Line board member and founding chairman of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership.
Weeks led the charge in transforming a 22-mile rail line in Atlanta into the trail and park that exist today. He said rail-to-trail projects typically bring in more businesses, housing, restaurants and shops, boosting economic development in communities while appreciating land values.
He said such projects need to incorporate affordable housing initiatives to stave off gentrification. He noted that the roughly $3 billion BeltLine project remains “one of the most-loved civic efforts in the Atlanta region.”
“People underestimated the transformational importance of the BeltLine until it started happening,” Weeks said. “The BeltLine creates so much more neighborhood improvement, change and use than ever expected.”
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 30, 2017, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.