For decades, Charleston’s West Side has struggled with housing blight, and now about 31 percent of the land in the area is vacant.
Ten years ago, the Charleston City Council adopted a West Side Renewal Plan to address blight on the West Side. This past April, a draft of the updated version was presented to the community at a public meeting at Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary.
Movement to address this issue began in 2007, when the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority hired a firm to conduct a survey of about 880 buildings on the West Side. About 81 percent of the buildings were residential. The survey found that the area was designated as slums and blight. This designation made it eligible for an urban renewal plan under State Code Chapter 16.
It was a 20-year renewal plan and, at the halfway point, it was decided an update was needed.
“Plans typically have a 20-year life. That’s a long time for development ideas, so we thought, in 10 years, it made sense to review the plan and look closely at the residential component,” CURA Executive Director Ron Butlin said.
The plan recommends initiatives to develop green space, a land bank for residential redevelopment, coordinating with nonprofits, such as the Appalachian Service Project and Habitat for Humanity, and improving access to public transportation on the West Side.
In October, there was talk of changing the boundaries of the plan, but they remain the same. The area is about 228 acres that sit between Kanawha Boulevard and Washington Street.
Between 2008 and this past summer, much of the development on the West Side was commercial projects, Butlin said.
Leaders of organizations such as the Tuesday Morning Group and the Charleston NAACP branch grew frustrated with the lack of movement on the project.
Ten years had passed, and they didn’t see much progress in addressing the housing blight, said Rick Martin, president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP.
With the help of attorney Kitty Dooley, the leaders of the groups submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to see how the city was spending money to address slums and blight.
“We began to rattle the cage,” Martin said.
The FOIA revealed that $5.8 million had been expended by CURA in that 10-year period, Martin said. But only about $200,000 or less of that $5.8 million had been spent on residential slums and blight. The majority of the money was spent on commercial projects, Martin said.
“It’s just amazing the city of Charleston would think no more of the residents than to spend less than $200,000 out of $5.8 million to address slums and blight,” Martin said.
In April 2018, ZMM and GAI were hired as consultants to update the plan. After speaking with those in the community and gathering public input, the updated version of the plan has more of a focus on residential areas.
“If you compare it to the previous report, there really is no comparison. This is a completely new plan, not an update,” said Adam Krason of ZMM Architects and Engineers.
Details of the final version of the plan are still in the works, and the team is still taking public comments until May 2.
After reviewing the public comments, the report would go to the Municipal Planning Commission in early May, then CURA will have to approve it. The Urban Renewal Committee meeting would be in late May or late June, with the report then going to the City Council in July.
A digital copy of the draft plan may be viewed on CURA’s website. There also will be hard copies available at West Side churches and the 2nd Avenue Center.
There wasn’t always this much public dialogue in the planning process. Representatives from the Tuesday Morning Group and Charleston NAACP requested public hearings about housing blight in September 2017. The previous administration denied this request.
In council meetings and letters to CURA, the groups stressed that creating a plan to address blight and slums was a requirement of state law.
“It has been a tremendous struggle to get the attention of the so-called elected leaders of the city to do one simple thing — follow the law,” Martin said.
The groups repeated the “follow the law” mantra in public meetings and it began frequently appearing in news reports.
“I think they were worried we were ready to sue, and we were,” Martin said. “So they began to do some things.”
Former mayor Danny Jones had requested $250,000 in CURA funding for the city to demolish dilapidated houses, mostly on the West Side. Eventually, the public meetings were given the green light, as well.
Martin said he’s happy to see the city taking steps forward toward addressing slums and blight.
“This has been a long time coming,” Martin said. “But as the expression goes: Better late than never.”
A problem with historical rootsHousing blight and slums has been a problem for the West Side long before conversations in 2007 began.
Since the West Side is along the banks of the Kanawha and Elk rivers, it has a great deal of level terrain. This allowed for early development leading to rapid growth, which caused poor construction standards and a lack of general infrastructure, according to the updated report.
In the 1930s, the majority of the West Side was zoned as “Definitely Declining” or “Hazardous” within Charleston’s Home Owner’s Loan Corporation mapping.
The neighborhood’s blight began to worsen in the 1970s, with the construction of Interstates 64 and 77.
These interstates created a roughly 300-foot-wide concrete and asphalt landscape on the West Side that removed more than 70 acres of houses and businesses from the area. It also widened the physical gap between West Side neighborhoods and downtown Charleston.
However, with the implementation of the new plan, city leaders hope it will bring some more homes back to the area.
“When you talk about revitalizing an area, the real core of that is the people living in the neighborhood,” Butlin said.