The city of North Charleston has a long and convoluted history grappling with the vast property that the Navy left behind when it closed its base and shipyard along the Cooper River a generation ago. But the city has an opportunity to write a promising new chapter soon, as it prepares to oversee development of new infill housing just west of the base’s historic officers’ quarters.
This city project, which has been in the planning stages for years, is expected to see movement soon, as the many puzzle pieces of redeveloping the former base finally fall into place.
The Navy left a vast amount of property. The southern end now is occupied by the Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal and federal offices, a series of piers and drydocks along the river that are home to assorted industrial uses, and a large swath just to the west being developed as an intermodal railyard to handle containers coming from and going to the Leatherman terminal.
But the jewel of the base always has been its northern end, particularly the officers’ quarters nestled amid a series of rolling hills shaded by dozens of mature, moss-draped trees. This unusually bucolic enclave is a reminder that Charleston had hired the Olmstead Brothers in the 19th century to make the area, once Retreat Plantation, into a vast new park, not unlike what the landscape firm’s namesake had helped do with New York’s Central Park a few decades before. It is here, amid a series of architecturally and historically significant buildings, that North Charleston plans a site for new housing.
We agree that some additional new homes would be an appropriate fit here. We also agree with the city’s vision of having these homes — and the residential portion of the district — gradually feather into the grander historic homes closer to Riverfront Park that have been (or eventually will be) renovated for more commercial, hospitality uses such as restaurants, event spaces and small lodging.
Ensuring that new housing is designed and built in a way that complements the officers’ quarters will be key. The city is on the right track with its infill goal — the officers’ quarters could benefit from additional housing, provided the density, height, quality of materials and design are right. The city should work with the broader community to make sure they are.
North Charleston currently has no architectural review board but plans to create one as part of this project. We not only urge city leaders to follow through on that, but we also urge the public to participate when the time comes.
Doing so might add cost and time, but it could make the difference between a successful project and something less. And it’s not just a question of ensuring suitable architectural design. The new housing should keep the open, park-like setting, so any type of fencing should be a no-go.
The Charleston Naval Yard Hospital Quarters Historic District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, runs west to Hobson Street. Most of the infill is expected in the area just west of that, along Manley Avenue. The city already has razed a handful of 1970s housing structures there to clear the site. The vision, though, would add more homes in the district itself. Again, arriving at just the right number, height and placement will be crucial to maintaining the ambiance.
Charleston’s preservation community has been involved in the base, particularly regarding damage done recently to the hospital historic district. Some of its buildings were lost during construction of a new rail line extending north from the planned intermodal yard, and the state and preservation groups have largely agreed on how that damage should be mitigated.
Building infill on the base’s historic officers’ quarters is a separate issue from that mitigation, but these groups’ experience in advocating for suitable, contextual development in historic Charleston can help North Charleston get its plan right.
“We urge the city of North Charleston to see the proximity of this new housing to an important National Register district as something that adds value to the plan,” Preservation Society Director Brian Turner tells us, “and we hope this is an opportunity to increase public knowledge and awareness of the significance of the landscape.”
Indeed, an ideal project here should not only add new homes and value to North Charleston’s tax base, but also help residents and visitors grow in their appreciation for the landscape and its significant history first as a plantation, then as a short-lived city park and finally as a place where some of the highest-ranking members of the Navy lived during their time in our community.
We don’t have all the answers on how to make that happen, but we are confident that the more the city engages the public — and incorporates that feedback — the better the outcome will be.