CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Folks who read the draft Downtown Redevelopment Plan for Charleston that was unveiled last week might suffer a case of déjà vu.Among its "big ideas," the plan calls for setting up a business improvement district in the urban core centered on Capitol Street, with a downtown management authority to look after the interests of property owners and merchants.It also targets the pedestrian corridor between Charleston Town Center and Capitol Street -- including Slack Plaza and Brawley Walkway -- for a massive makeover.And throughout the plan, for these and other projects, the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority (CURA) is expected to play a major role.
Turn the clock back 25 or 35 years, and you'll find that CURA managed a Downtown Urban Renewal Plan for the urban core. The Charleston Downtown Association (a.k.a. the Downtown Merchants Association or the Downtown Business Association) helped organize chili cook-offs, sidewalk sales and Christmas parades until its demise in 1997.You can find CURA's imprint all across downtown -- from the mall to Haddad Park, from Capitol Market to the Embassy Suites hotel. Now the agency will be called on to lead again."The urban renewal agency did have a downtown urban renewal district and plan, which expired in 2008," said Jim Edwards, who took over the reins at CURA last year, bringing a preference for preservation over clearance."Since that time there has been no active effort [in downtown]. We do have the Smith Street/Shrewsbury Street Plan, which is nearby. Even though that was renewed in 2005, it dates back to the ''80s, so the bulk of it is out of date."One of the roles we can play is to use the downtown [redevelopment] plan as a basis for a new urban renewal plan, and get back into the redevelopment of downtown." Board members have already been talking about reestablishing such a district," Edwards said. "Obviously, we have resources; we have funds that we can't use right now in downtown, and we have a full-time staff. We can certainly play a part."Although neither the downtown plan or the broader comprehensive plan is in effect yet, as both are in the final comment stage, it's likely the City Council will adopt them close to their current form.
"One of the major recommendations is to create a management authority and a business improvement district that would provide full force attention to the needs of the downtown district," Edwards said.Many cities have adopted business improvement districts to rebuild their downtowns, said plan author Craig Gossman from his office with MKSK in Covington, Ky. "It's not something we invented."It's linked to a district: This is area that's included in the BID (business improvement district) and the land that's included; 60 percent of the property owners would have to agree to participate."While an existing group like CURA or the Charleston Area Alliance might organize the district, Gossman said a new coalition focused specifically on downtown -- a management authority -- might do the job.In any case, the BID would be a quasi-governmental group that would set up its own bylaws and rules for operation.
"The bylaws would include how we assess each other to raise money," he said. "Some aim at keeping streets squeaky clean, graffiti off the walls, and putting eyes on the street -- not beat cops, but ambassadors who would greet visitors and answer questions. Or BIDs can focus specifically on marketing."As Gossman told folks at the plan rollout last week, downtown merchants have to compete with Charleston Town Center, nationally one of the best-performing malls in its region. The mall has its own staff to work with merchants and market the mall, he said."Who is representing downtown every day? Who is negotiating with property owners? You're the missing piece."CURA-owned properties figure in directly with two of the sites targeted by the downtown plan as key sites for redevelopment: the northern end of Capitol Street, from Washington to Smith Street; and the former Holley/Worthy hotel site on Quarrier Street.The agency owns four sites downtown, Edwards said."Another role CURA can play in downtown is selling their properties back into play, and there may be a need to acquire additional properties," he said.
CURA board members are already negotiating with an unnamed party who wants to build a multi-story, multi-use building on the Quarrier Street hotel site.At Capitol Street, the plan calls for a number of short-term streetscape-type improvements -- new light fixtures, paving, murals and banners -- followed by construction of multi-use buildings on some of the many parking lots to fill gaps along the street."We own two parcels right on the upper end of Capitol Street which are parking lots at this time," Edwards said.Revised standards would require the new buildings to fit in with existing structures, with shops on the first floor and housing above.Office towers of an earlier generation lacked such amenities, Edwards said, as they did across the country."What they missed was the chance to contribute to the street life. They became isolated projects that you drove into and drove out of. Of course employees walked out to shop or eat. But imagine if all the ground floors had restaurants and shops. They would contribute to the downtown."Gossman said it was a "no-brainer" to identify CURA as a prime leader in downtown redevelopment."But other organizations could step forward, whether they are for-profit or nonprofit. It's not to suggest CURA, the city and Alliance will do all the work and everyone else can go home."People have at least another week to read and comment on the downtown and comprehensive plans. You can see them at imaginecharleston.com -- click on the Exhibits tab. Contact the city's Planning Department at 304-348-8105 for information.Reach Jim Balow at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5102.