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Keeping ‘guard’ on the foot of Tradd

The Advocate

It was a surprise. Many have long feared that the historic Coast Guard station at the end of Tradd Street would close someday. No one guessed that Charleston’s Coast Guard assets and personnel would more than double.

But that’s the plan.

Coast Guard base operations are slated to move to North Charleston at the old Naval Shipyard on the Cooper River as five new National Security Cutters and other Offshore Patrol Cutters are to be added to its fleet. Guard personnel would double, too, rising to 2,000 once the Charleston sector upgrade is completed.

According to LTJG Philip VanderWeit, Sector Charleston Public Affairs Officer, the move is part of a larger East Coast facilities consolidation plan that will establish the North Charleston base as a major strategic port.

Changes won’t be immediate, though. It will take time to build out the necessary infrastructure at the old Navy Base before any move can happen. “There are no signals now to pack up,” VanderWeit noted. But larger facilities will be necessary for the extra personnel and to accommodate those five 418-foot, long-range National Security Cutters.

So what will happen to the property at the end of Tradd?

Jacob Lindsey, Charleston’s director of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability, said, “There’s rampant speculation on redevelopment … but at this point, we have no indication the [Tradd Street] site is going to be discontinued.”

Lindsey noted that the Coast Guard has processes to close bases, and that process will likely take a couple of years, but in the meantime the city is committed to total transparency about the procedure should the Guard divest the property.

Most importantly, Lindsey noted that the use for the seven-and-a half-acre site is constrained by zoning. No one will be able to build a Sgt. Jasper — or even a “demoted” Jasper — there. And there will never be a hotel or high-density development on the site, no matter what happens.

“The property is zoned for single family residential use.” Lindsey said, “and that would not allow for commercial or high density residential use. The height restriction is two-and-a-half stories there.”

There are two handsome historic buildings on the property. One, the large, three-story pink building was part of the old Chisholm Ricemill Building dating to 1858. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and received the coveted Carolopolis Award for historic preservation in 1996.

The smaller two-story brick “Captain of the Port” administrative building facing Tradd Street was originally constructed in 1934 as the United States Lighthouse Service Building. “Even that more recent brick building is protected by a demolition ordinance,” said Kristopher King, executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston.

“But if the property is sold, the use will change, and that use would require zoning approval,” King said. The BAR would have to approve any demolition or exterior alteration of those historic buildings, a highly unlikely outcome South of Broad. The other support buildings on the campus are not historically significant and would likely be removed if the property were sold.

The city is carefully monitoring any potential sale of the Coast Guard station, especially because of its critical waterfront location and from a water management and resiliency perspective.

Based on the recommendations from the Dutch Dialogues, “that location is the perfect location for water retention and a pump station to alleviate flooding” South of Broad, Lindsey said. So important are the flooding issues, Lindsey would consider something similar to Colonial Lake to store water on the site. A large swath of the property is marshy and undeveloped which does help with flooding and storm surge issues.

Kristopher King agrees that, “it’s one of the most important properties from a flooding perspective. Using it for flood mitigation would help the entire neighborhood. Just as with Union Pier, we can’t continue to use the old model and approach. We have to address these properties in a way that’s going to be beneficial from a storm water and flooding perspective.” He asks, “How can we take advantage of this opportunity?”

This prestigious waterfront location also makes it valuable, and if the Coast Guard station does come on the market, it may be too expensive for the city to buy even though the city’s larger mission is to expand public waterfront access. One way to accomplish that might be to combine single-family residential development with a public park and waterfront access.

Jack O’Toole, the city’s director of communications, would support public access: “We should try to make it more resilient, more beautiful, and more livable for our residents.” The Mercury’s publisher, Charles Waring III, would agree. The avid sportsman notes that there are deep fishing holes in the Ashley River not far from that pier; he says, “Just see where the dolphin feed regularly. The NOAA chart says it is 26 feet deep.”

Back in 2015, public access was a primary goal for the neighborhood, historic and preservation groups during the Sgt. Jasper negotiations with the Beach Company. There was hope of saving St. Mary’s Field as a public park. That negotiation was less than successful, and the Beach Company plans to build a row of townhouses on St. Mary’s Field facing Barre Street. It’s believed that some of that field will be open to the public, but the details concerning the amount of public space and hours for public access remain uncertain.

The Coast Guard is in the earliest stages of this significant base upgrade and expansion; nothing will happen right away. Because the historic Tradd Street station is ideally situated near the ocean for quick search and rescue and law enforcement responses, the historic station may not be abandoned after all. And budgets, priorities and elections could change the best plans prior to execution.

But if the Tradd Street station is closed, the city will carefully monitor the sale process. And because of the zoning restrictions on the property, we don’t need to fear another towering development.

But there will be a three-way contest for the use of this valuable property: residential housing, water and flood management and public access.

Our plan should be to find a way to do it all.

Jay Williams, Jr. arrived in Charleston in 2001 to escape the cold and relax in the warmth of a better culture and climate. This all worked well until May of 2011 when he attended a cruise terminal discussion at Physicians Hall.

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