Charleston Planning Commission

The massive new Laurel Island development project is billed as bringing affordable housing and mixed-use space to the peninsula. But first, developers will have to tame the verdant space that was actually once a landfill, a process that could take years.

What will be seen in the near future, though, are the impacts of the development on neighboring communities.

Laurel Island, a large tract of land at the end of Romney Street downtown was used as a household waste landfill and a dredge spoil at separate times through the early 20th century. It was later capped, and in the last 15 years, it’s been targeted by a number of potential developers, but a new proposal has made it further than any other.

“The last serious proposal was a victim of the recession of 2008, and this plan is just the new one that has emerged after the failure of that previous project,” said Charleston Director of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability Jacob Lindsey. “A project of this scale isn’t something that happens every day. It takes a lot of moving parts just to propose something like this.”

Though this project has made it further than others, Lindsey said it’s important to remember that it’s only in its infancy, only in the beginning of the process of gaining permission to build. The project could be 20 years from completion at this point.

“Because it’s a landfill in a marsh, they will have to do major infrastructure work like pile driving to be able to support roads and buildings,” said the Coastal Conservation League Communities and Transportation Director Jason Crowley. “So it is a very expensive type of development. It’s not like developing a normal property.”

More than that, roadways, drainage systems, and physical conditions of the land must all be improved in order to properly develop fill land like that on Laurel Island. No previous developer had made an effort to build out that infrastructure until now, according to Lindsey.

“This group has made a real effort to study the bridges, the upgrades to the land itself and all other improvements that will be needed, Lindsey said. “They have reached out to adjacent neighbors and are proposing improvements there that will benefit the community and our city.

“That was a pitfall of earlier plans,” Lindsey said. “They didn’t communicate with the nearby communities.”

However, community outreach is a difficult effort to measure, and others believe that more can be done.

“While the project team has met virtually with a few neighborhoods since the information-only July 15 Planning Commission meeting, outreach this close to the official Planning Commission review is inevitably rushed and insufficient, especially during a time when in-person engagement is so challenging,” said the Preservation Society of Charleston.

Charleston Planning Commision

Other challenges that come with building on landfill aren’t new to the peninsula. Much of the soil (or garbage) that makes up the ground under historic downtown Charleston and even areas developed in recent decades were shoveled there by previous generations.

“Charlestonians have been filling and reclaiming land almost from the moment the town was established because of pervasive tidal creeks and marshlands now only visible on historic maps or during extreme flooding events,” said local author and historian Christina Butler.

Even though it can be unstable, fill land was used because it was cheap, and there wasn’t any native stone along the South Carolina coast. The man-made land included human and slaughterhouse waste, construction debris, street sweepings and garbage for their development.

Historically, builders rarely consulted engineers for such projects, leading to problems down the line, according to Butler, who published “Lowcountry at High Tide” this summer, documenting the history of landfill in urban Charleston.

“West Edge is a former landfill on the peninsula,” Crowley said. “That is a very different site to Laurel Island, though. That area was literally just waste thrown into the marsh that built up and they were forced to close it in the 1970s. It wasn’t capped well, and that’s part of the issues with Gadsden Creek we see now. That is not the same situation as Laurel Island by any means.”

The project would bring some jobs and housing for a densely populated downtown area that has seen quick growth in recent years.

“If this project were to be built, it would put workplaces, services and housing in the right location for the region,” Lindsey said. “Folks can live and work here without putting strain on our transportation networks.”

However, other groups believe that the amount of land dedicated to such use, 10 percent for workforce housing, isn’t enough to make the difference that could be seen from a Laurel Island development.

“Laurel Island represents the single biggest opportunity we will have as a city to make a meaningful impact on the shortage of workforce housing in downtown Charleston,” the Preservation Society said. “While we commend the commitment to providing workforce housing in perpetuity, 10 percent is in fact well below the standard for large projects.”

The Preservation Society demanded the developers commit to requiring 20 percent of all housing built on the property to be permanent workforce housing, as well as ensuring that affordable housing is incorporated throughout the build-out process.

“You are taking a former dump and repurposing it for productive use again,” Crowley said. “It’s similar to a former industrial site being cleaned up and put back to community use, and that’s something. The alternative would be for it to sit there as a wasteland while we sprawl out into our pristine rural areas.”