Large, white buildings that once housed thousands of U.S. Navy sailors have been vacant for years. Boards cover many of the windows; others have shards of glass missing. Doors are blocked off with two-by-fours and many of the building’s roofs are in major disrepair. The interiors have sat untouched for decades.
Bulldozers are now moving dirt on a large, cleared swath of land at the intersection of Spruill and McMillan avenues — signs of more change for the former Navy base in North Charleston.
As part of the site preparations, the dirt will be moved to Palmetto Railways’ future 100-acre rail yard, which will provide a container transfer facility for cargo headed for the S.C. State Ports Authority’s new cargo terminal, pending regulatory approvals. The port terminal is in the beginning of construction at the south end of the Navy Base.
When the Navy Base was closed in 1996, thousands of people lost their jobs and Charleston’s economy was sent reeling. By 2001, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey and developer John Knott had a plan to transform the former Navy base into the “New American City.”
Through a public-private partnership, they envisioned a residential and commercial hub with the Navy Yard at Noisette as its urban core. Over the years, the now-defunct Noisette Co.’s plans stalled as the housing market collapsed and the recession hit the country. Most of Noisette’s holdings went into foreclosure by 2010.
Palmetto Railways, an arm of the S.C. Commerce Department, and Commerce purchased 240 acres out of foreclosure in 2010 with help from Greystar, a Charleston-based real estate developer. That re-energized a political war of words between the city and state leaders over the base property.
North Charleston opposed the state’s rail access plan from the north end of the base, saying it violated a 2002 memorandum of understanding between the city and the ports authority, which granted rail access only through the southern end of the base. North Charleston filed a lawsuit based on that agreement. Commerce maintained the port had no authority to enter into such an agreement.
The suits ended in a 2012 settlement that gave the state 54 acres of city property, including the iconic Power House, and the rights to the land needed for its rail plan. The city received $8 million and 104 acres of state property. The city’s land includes the officer housing area and the land north of Noisette Creek. Palmetto Railways bought the remaining 50 acres from Noisette for $10 million in 2013.
The state’s longtime plan to bring rail lines into the old Navy base to serve a future port terminal is now becoming reality — site preparation has started on both projects.
Additionally, North Charleston has plans to renovate old Navy buildings into event spaces; redevelop part of its land into a mixed-use, higher-density development; and possibly sell off parcels to private developers. City staff plans to bring a new master plan to City Council in the next few months.
The Charleston Naval Complex Redevelopment Authority, formed by the Legislature to redevelop the former Navy base, is restoring several buildings there as well.
Since the Charleston naval base closed, various spaces have been leased out to government entities and private businesses over the years. Detyens Shipyard and marine repair company CMMC have about 2 million square feet of industrial space, all of which is filled with private companies, city spokesman Ryan Johnson said.
Other companies that operate on the former base include Clemson University’s Restoration Institute, which houses the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley; Clemson University’s SCE&G Energy Innovation Center, which houses the wind turbine test facility; numerous federal offices, Coast Brewing, Water Mission and other, smaller companies and nonprofits.
Ray Anderson, special assistant to Summey, said city plans are somewhat on hold until Palmetto Railways goes through the permitting and environmental process with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Charleston District.
“A lot of people are so concerned about the uncertainty. We want everything to be certain so everyone can get going and work toward something,” Anderson said. “We are anxious to wrap up the master plan and get it adopted by council.”
Rail and ports at former Navy base
Palmetto Railways has been planning for several years to build its Intermodal Container Transfer Facility at the former Navy base in North Charleston to serve the Port of Charleston.
The latest proposal, which would build two connections to the existing rail network to provide CSX and Norfolk Southern Railway with access to the terminal, is under review by the Army Corps in Charleston.
Some of the major infrastructure changes include a new northern connection built through the Charleston Naval Hospital Historic District and a new railroad bridge built across Noisette Creek to provide Norfolk Southern with direct access to the rail yard.
Additionally, Cosgrove Avenue would be moved and turned into an overpass from the Spruill Avenue area, connecting to what is now McMillan Avenue near Noisette Boulevard, to separate rail and vehicle traffic. And a mile-long private road is planned between the container transfer facility and the port terminal for trucks carrying shipping containers.
The Army Corps is preparing an Environmental Impact Statement to assess the project’s potential social, economic and environmental impacts on the surrounding area.
Palmetto Railways’ planned container yard aims to provide rail and road connections for the transfer of cargo to the future Hugh K. Leatherman Sr. Terminal. Site preparation for the port terminal is underway; the authority expects phase one to open by 2020.
“The purpose of the proposed project is, in brief, to provide a state-of-the-art intermodal hub to serve the Port of Charleston with equal access to the two Class I rail carriers serving the area ... to meet future demand, as the existing individual CSX and NS intermodal rail yards are reaching capacity,” Jeff McWhorter, president and CEO of Palmetto Railways, said in a letter to the Army Corps.
Palmetto Railways now owns about 300 acres at the former Navy base. As part of its plans, McWhorter said in an email, “a number of buildings and structures have been demolished,” some of which were because of concerns about their safety.
What’s old is new again
North Charleston and the redevelopment authority also have plans for the remaining land not currently leased to companies or owned by the state.
City staff is in the middle of revising its master plan for about 80 acres on the north end of the Navy Base. Preliminary plans include creating mixed-use developments with greater heights and densities than surrounding buildings, as well as underground parking decks and green space.
Anderson, Summey’s assistant, said he envisions residential, office and retail uses, with a focus on spaces for tech companies. The city might hand the project over to a private developer — as it had in the original plans with the Noisette Co. The city also wants to extend Riverfront Park through this area. All plans would have to be voted on.
The city also hopes to renovate a few of the homes in the Charleston Navy Yard Officers’ Quarters Historic District, primarily the Admiral’s House, for possible event space. Most of the remaining homes will likely be sold for residential development.
A few years ago, the city converted Quarters K — a former naval officers’ home that most recently housed Runaway Bay restaurant — into a wedding and event venue. Quarters C has also been turned into an event space.
Robert Ryan, executive director of the redevelopment authority, said the entity is working on designs to renovate Quarters A into a wedding and event venue and possibly create a museum on the base.
Work is underway to restore the Eternal Father of the Sea chapel, which was built in 1942 and stood in the way of the state’s planned rail line. The authority recently had it moved closer to its office to prevent demolition.
“We want to keep as much as we can here,” Ryan said. “There is a lot of history.”
Anderson said he expects each building to need extensive remediation for asbestos and lead paint. The city treated the structures for termites and boarded up the windows several years ago.
“They have a lot of damage now,” Anderson said. “The main thing is to keep them from getting worse. ... We are very pleased to see that many historic home renovations are completed at this time, but we certainly have a number to go.”
Published from the April 18, 2016, print edition
Reach staff writer Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119 or @lizsegrist on Twitter.