A plan from the early 2000s to transform part of Charleston’s Westside neighborhood into a hotbed for life sciences firms, medical device companies and innovative medical research is now in motion.
A large-scale development known as WestEdge is in the works on land bounded by Lockwood Boulevard, Fishburne Street, Hagood Avenue and Spring Street. A few hotels and office buildings, Brittlebank Park, Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park and expansive gravel parking lots dot that part of the Westside today.
WestEdge is the brainchild of the Medical University of South Carolina Foundation and the city. They plan to redevelop much of the site, formerly a defunct landfill, into a bustling hub of medical companies, commercial spaces and residences.
They hope a mix of apartments, condominiums, restaurants, shops and offices in a walkable community, coupled with its proximity to downtown amenities and the waterfront, will entice medical companies to launch Charleston operations.
MUSC President Dr. David Cole said the region needs to attract and develop more knowledge-based companies in the bioscience sector to “get to the next level.”
“The WestEdge is an engine for building the knowledge-based economy in this region,” Cole said.
Work has started on the first two buildings in the project, and a third is expected to begin sometime this spring. Those projects will yield apartments, offices, laboratory spaces, shops, restaurants, a Publix grocery store and parking garages.
Three new streets are also under construction within the project. WestEdge Street will act as a central thoroughfare through WestEdge, according to developers.
WestEdge encompasses 60 acres of city-owned land, MUSC Foundation-owned land and some private parcels, such as the Charleston Marriott. The private land will be considered part of the WestEdge area but not part of the redevelopment plans.
The MUSC Foundation and the city formed the nonprofit WestEdge Foundation to implement the project’s master plan and sell some city- and MUSC-owned land parcels to private developers. The WestEdge Foundation has the option to sell about 26 acres.
In addition to the first three mixed-use buildings in the works, 12 more projects could be developed over the next 10 to 15 years, said Michael Maher, CEO of the WestEdge Foundation. Maher worked for the city for more than a decade on the project before becoming CEO.
“We can develop a biotech research cluster in association with the medical district here in Charleston. ... We believe we can help to reinvigorate that component of our economy,” Maher said.
Strength in numbers
The beginnings of the project took root about 15 years ago, when the city saw a chance to revitalize part of the Westside by bringing more housing and commercial space to the peninsula.
Planners saw WestEdge as an extension of the existing medical district, located on the other side of Spring Street.
While project branding has changed over time — from the Upper Lockwood vision to the Horizon project to the current WestEdge district — the concept remains the same: to create a place for the medical sector to grow and thrive.
Planners want to build on the existing research and hospital presence by recruiting biotechnology, research, medical device and life sciences firms into WestEdge.
City and MUSC leaders envision a cluster of health care companies, their employees living in nearby apartments or condominiums. They want to mirror the success seen in Raleigh-Durham’s Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.
Cole said he wants to see bioscience firms recruited into the city with the same fervor that manufacturing companies are sought after by the state. Cole stressed that having a diverse set of researchers and companies working close together benefits medical outcomes.
“The best science and the best innovation does not come in isolation,” Cole said.
Difficult to develop
The land set aside for the WestEdge project was formerly marsh. It then operated as a city landfill for several decades before it was filled in the early 1970s.
The underground pollution and flooding that often occur on man-made sites in Charleston make for difficult building conditions, Maher said.
“Think of how much has changed in Charleston in 50 years compared to here (the WestEdge area), where not much has happened,” Maher said. “If people say the best use of this is gravel parking, you know you have a challenging site. It is prime real estate locationally and it has assets, but it is a big challenge.”
Maher points to the opening of Charleston Place in the 1980s on Lower King Street as an example of what he wants to see with WestEdge. The new hotel and shops reinvigorated activity on King Street, bringing in more stores, offices, restaurants and people.
“We want the same kind of transformation on the Westside with WestEdge,” Maher said, noting that the project would impact only a sliver of the Westside neighborhood.
He said WestEdge will bring a grocery store to a neighborhood that currently lacks one. The project does not include any affordable or workforce housing units; developers instead opted to pay the city a fee for such projects at another location.
Maher said he also wants WestEdge to help retain qualified employees by having high-paying jobs and a downtown lifestyle available for those in the medical field. He said that often people will leave Charleston to move up in their careers, or they will stay but might sacrifice a career trajectory.
“This is about trying to create the opportunities for the talent and the young people ... to be able to begin and end their careers in Charleston and take advantage of the quality of life without the compromise of saying, ‘I’m willing to do less in my career because I want to stay in Charleston,’” Maher said. “You shouldn’t have to make that choice.”
This story ran in the Jan. 22 print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.