Many scars remain in Charleston from transportation works projects of decades past, from a time when all civic projects were laser focused on an automobile-centric vision for a city’s future. In the 1960s, our fair port city was connected with America’s burgeoning interstate highway system with the Interstate 26 project. Paving a beeline freeway from the upstate, zipping through the capital city of Columbia and sailing across the Interstate 95 interchange, the most difficult portion of its construction was the terminus into the Charleston peninsula. The elevated freeway cut a swath through the historic urban landscape, separating neighborhoods before unleashing traffic onto the Crosstown expressway – a surface-level gash that sliced through the neat lines of Charleston’s street grid of neighborhoods dating to the early 19th century.
In the past few years, we have had discussions about improving these poorly-foresighted transportation projects of yesteryear. Work completed recently on a rejuvenation of the Crosstown Expressway into a much improved thoroughfare – both visually and functionally – with improved lighting, landscaping, crosswalks, and bicycle paths. Now attention is turning to healing the wounds from the Interstate 26 corridor.
The Lowcountry Lowline
Enter Friends of the Lowcountry Lowline, a local nonprofit connected to the likes of our bicycling friends at Charleston Moves. Its board of directors has proposed the development of a new greenway – the Charleston Rail Line Linear Park – a 1.5-mile-long strip of land from Mount Pleasant Street to Woolfe Street. Call it the Lowcountry Lowline, an allusion to the beautiful High Line in New York City. Currently the area is a deserted strip of mostly barren land, covered in weeds and framed by the back ends of buildings, and happens to be the landscape below as you’re sailing into the port city on I-26 at
73mph 50mph. From the surface streets below, the scenery is bleak. Conversion to a new greenway with pedestrian and bike paths would reconnect neighborhoods, spark new businesses, and beautify the city’s major gateway. Officials are saying it would help set the stage for improving Charleston’s economic future.
Tom Bradford, board president of Friends of the Lowcountry Lowline, touts that the greenway is all about healing the city. “It’s an eyesore today, a place where people lurk. But if you can enjoyably, comfortably move north and south… safely, from one neighborhood to another, basically you see the city once again as unified.”
Poised for Development
Creation of the Lowcountry Lowline brings to light new possibilities of urban planning and transportation options like commuter rail, as noted by Tim Keane, director of the city’s Department of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability. Keane called the project “potentially transformative,” particularly with the public-private partnership with Norfolk Southern, who owns both the land and the decommissioned rail lines. What is currently the seedy back-end of nearby buildings would become an alternative “front yard” for adjacent buildings, with a strip of green that makes it easier and more pleasant for residents to get around.
The area is also seeing a rash of commercial and residential development, including the mixed-use Midtown of Charleston along King Street between Spring and Cannon. Midtown was designed with the greenway in mind, as was Courier Square, the first phase of development of Evening Post Industries around The Post and Courier building. The proposed greenway would stretch to an area on its north end that has been a draw for entrepreneurial startups and trendy restaurants, and would probably have spurs connecting to the Cooper River Bridge Pedestrian & Bike Path and Hampton Park.
Did You Just Say Commuter Rail?
For years we’ve been talking about a commuter rail in Charleston. Not only would it help alleviate the burden on the perpetually congested Interstate 26 – currently the only primary route to North Charleston and Summerville – it would be a blessing to thousands of commuters that would rather just enjoy the trip. If only we had the funds to lay 21.5 miles of railroad track… unless it was already there, and running right through the Lowline greenway. However when asked, Mayor Riley and other officials disassociated the commuter rail concept from the greenway plans, which is a more “immediate” improvement. Baby steps.
Update – October 27, 2015
The nonprofit entity that is stewarding the development of the linear park – Friends of the Lowcountry Lowline – has entered into an agreement with Norfolk Southern to purchase the land for the greenway. The group will have two years to raise funds, currently an undisclosed sum, and to engage the community around the proposed greenway for input on the project.
Charleston’s outgoing Mayor Joe Riley has for years had his eye on transforming the currently barren space as a mechanism for healing urban scars. “Our neighborhoods are divided that needn’t be,” Riley remarked. “We’ve seen in other cities and we know intuitively when you enhance a forlorn space, it creates opportunities for economic development, opportunities and places for people to live and people to work.”
No official plans have been announced, however the possibilities still being discussed include the north end of the park just above Mount Pleasant Street on the upper peninsula, running south to Wolfe Street – possibly terminating at a new Green Space on Upper King – as well as possible connections to Hampton Park and the Ravenel Bridge pedestrian path. Since the initial call for the linear park, construction of the mixed-use Midtown of Charleston development, which was designed with the possibility of the Lowcountry Lowline to stroll between its buildings, has reached completion.