With older parts of the neighborhood adjacent to new development, many residents fear it’s only a matter of time before they are pushed out | Photo by Rūta Smith

Left Behind

Editor’s Note: This is the first in an ongoing series of cover features about big issues facing Charleston residents.

 Elizabeth Jenkins, neighborhood president of East Central, a small community nestled mostly between upper Meeting Street and Morrison Drive, remembers her home looking a lot different when she was younger. That was before Interstate 26 divided the neighborhood in two in late 1969; before the Ravenel Bridge almost 30 years later once again sliced into the neighborhood that’s one of the last bastions of downtown Charleston’s Black community. 

“This was a working-class community,” she recalled. “You had different people, and you had the church, and what made this area great was the people. They took pride in ownership. They kept the neighborhoods well, and because they kept the neighborhoods, this was really the last bit of entity, besides the Eastside, [where] the Blacks lived.

“When they came and took away that part, they took away the people. It really leaves a disdain in you.” Jenkins said. “Why do you have to have this bridge? Why do you have to have this road? And why does it have to come through my community? And whatever they took away, they never gave back.”

The East Central neighborhood of past, compared to today, is unrecognizable | Courtesy City of Charleston Planning Department

Further change can be seen in development along the Morrison Drive corridor, as what was once a bustling light industrial and commercial network of car lots and warehouses is gradually making way for riverside condos and high-end office complexes. Developers, city officials and longtime residents of the area have long been wrestling with the identity of the corridor — what it has been and what it is shaping up to be. 

“I’ve spent some time with staff on that — the identity of Morrison Drive — especially the character of certain neighborhoods, and I think Morrison Drive, from what I’ve been able to see, really captures that eclectic nature of diverse entities,” said the City of Charleston Planning Director Robert Summerfield.

“As it transitioned to different types of industrial activity while maintaining a residential sector, a lot of folks that lived in those smaller areas there were able to walk and work in some of the warehouses and other types of industrial activities that have occurred along Morrison,” he said.

At least, that was the idea. Summerfield describes the heavier development of Morrison Drive as an indirect benefit to the residential community. As traffic increases, so too does the cashflow in the corridor, he said.

“The biggest projects are on the northern end of Morrison Drive, the district created by the city with Edmund’s Oast and all of those,” said former CEO of the Charleston Housing Authority Don Cameron, who has witnessed the corridor’s growth first-hand. “It brought life and vitality. Those restaurants and dining facilities and groupings where people can gather and enjoy one another’s company have done a lot to draw attention to the area.”

But Jenkins said East Central residents haven’t felt any of the presumed benefits. Part of that is because some details were left up to wealthy developers and buyers, rather than city and community leaders. 

“They left us to the wolves, to the investors,” Jenkins said. “That’s why we have a ton of investors here in Charleston now, because the property is cheap here, and it’s prime property. When the city has investors come in, though, they don’t make the investors invest in the community.”

“If you’re going to let them come, make sure they invest in the communities,” she said. “Sidewalks we need, better lighting we need — and I guarantee you, they’ll do it … For the amount of people we have now walking, every street should have a sidewalk.” 

East Central’s only park space is under threat by future potential developments | Photos by Rūta Smith

As it stands, newer, larger developments and more profitable elements feature sidewalks that don’t run the length of residential streets, leading to something akin to a patchwork network. The only park space left in the East Central neighborhood, on the corner of Cool Blow and N. Nassau streets, also has no sidewalks, an issue Jenkins says defeats the purpose of its kid-friendly playground. “How are kids supposed to get there safely?” she said.

And as the residential areas were left further and further behind, the differences became more apparent to commuters along the corridor, who look toward the Cooper River and see brand new and up-and-coming developments across the street from some longtime residents’ deteriorating single-family homes and affordable housing units.

Cameron said the Housing Authority has plans to refurbish many of those units, but not before the completion of the Morrison Yard development, a large-scale project set to bring 370 apartment units, along with various restaurants, shops and office buildings to the area.

The massive Morrison Yard development across the street from Sanders-Clyde includes apartments, retail and office space | Photo by Rūta Smith

“I think if you went out there right now, it looks like [East Central] was left behind, but our commitment is to re-engineer all of our public housing properties, including those,” Cameron said. “It’s a long-term plan, but I guess in my head, what I visualize is that six to eight years from now, instead of there being 300 family apartments, there could be a thousand, and it could be all mixed-income.”

Summerfield said he recognized the challenge of having an older neighborhood adjacent to these newer developments.

“One of the challenges that is faced is the timing of some of these developments — understanding when some will come online and the benefits of those developments and how those will provide benefits to existing residences is a challenge,” he said. “It’s a conversation that needs to occur — [about] what happens when these developments do come online within these older neighborhoods.”

Jenkins has a couple ideas. With her primary concerns being the lack of input on how developments are incorporated into the community, she proposes a commission that can put pressure on investors to include the community in their plans. 

“That’s how we grow,” she said. “We grow when we work together for one common cause, to make things better for everybody. If we keep that mindset, because nobody’s an island, things will get better. We push investors to come in, fix the roads, put better lighting on the whole street, and they’ll take it or not, but I bet they will because they want to be here.”

And the need for such a commission may arise sooner rather than later, Jenkins fears, as the development of Laurel Island looms. Preliminary plans included a bridge over Morrison Drive connecting the massive new planned community to Cool Blow Street, further dividing the East Central neighborhood and pushing up against that sole remaining park. 

Summerfield says he is aware such development could create “growing pains” for the corridor, but that ultimately the project would be an asset. 

“We have the upper peninsula zoning district as an option, which has a real viability as you increase residential density, but also as a component of that is workforce housing,” he said. 

“The lack of workforce housing, not just affordable housing, but workforce housing, has been a struggle,” Summerfield said. “When you think of all the service jobs on the peninsula, the wages of those jobs are so out of line with the cost of housing on the peninsula if you’re just coming into the market. Having those opportunities will be a challenge that is really there, but one that we will see some solution with the future Morrison Drive.”

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