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Housing, retail space planned downtown

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The Charleston Urban Renewal Authority has agreed to sell a block in downtown Charleston to a company that hopes to build a mixed-use facility near Capitol Market.

Authority board members agreed to the $350,000 sale to Pison Development during a special meeting Wednesday.

The 0.7-acre parcel is bordered by Dickinson, Lewis, Shrewsbury and Christopher streets, and is across from the Garnet Career Center.

 It was appraised at $440,000, said Jack Cavender, authority chairman.

The company is proposing a four-story building for the site, said Bill Turner, Pison Development co-owner.

The first floor will be designated for commercial/retail space. The top three floors will house one- and two-bedroom apartments for people 55 and older, Turner said.

He expects to construct 17 one-bedroom and 15 two-bedroom apartments.

"We hope it will be fully occupied by the end of 2014," Turner said.

Rents aren't set yet, but will likely run $400 to $600 per month. The developer plans to seek tax credits through the state Housing Development Fund.

The plan includes onsite parking and green space. About 30 percent of the property would be made up of green space for tenants.

The building will be about 40,000 square feet and cost $3 million to $4 million to construct, Turner said. Pison plans to use Buckhannon-based High Point Construction Group to construct the building.

Charleston-based Associated Architects Inc. is designing the building.

Although the authority and the developer have agreed on a price, the deal isn't final, Cavender said. The company must get approval from the city and obtain building permits before it can begin work.

The company also must obtain final design approval from the authority. 

"We have a strong interest in the design," board member Lew Tyree said. 

Turner insisted the building would be made of high-quality material. The outside will be brick, he said. 

Cavender said he was pleased with the proposal and thinks it fits well with the neighborhood.

The authority's familiarity with Pison is one reason the price was dropped below the appraisal price, Cavender said. Pison has been working on projects around the state for about a decade.

The company redeveloped the Lowenstein Building on Capitol Street in downtown Charleston, turning the upper floors into apartments, Turner said.

The authority has held onto the property near Garnet for more than 15 years in hopes it would one day be developed. It is currently being used for parking. 

The authority purchased numerous parcels and combined them to come up with the current footprint, Executive Director Jim Edwards said. He thinks the entire property cost about $500,000.

That figure includes the cost of demolishing structures on the property, he said.

The authority currently leases the space, which is used as a parking lot for the Garnet Career Center and a nearby funeral home, for about $860 per month, according to figures provided by Edwards. The lease agreement was made with the understanding the property could be developed at any time, Edwards said.

The plan did not pass unquestioned, although the sale price was approved unanimously. Charleston Councilman Cubert Smith, who represents an East End ward, said the community might be better served by a green space.

Edwards responded by saying the city's consultant on the downtown revitalization plan, MKSK, had looked at the property and suggested a mixed-use building that incorporated green space.

"What's being proposed is almost the same as what the consultants suggested," Edwards said.

Smith also questioned how the completed project would affect traffic.

The building would not affect streets in the vicinity as much as other potential uses, Edwards said. That is because the facility would house people 55 and older.

"They tend to not drive as much as others," he said.

Smith also pointed out that the site is in the middle of a block that has been designated as a historic area for African Americans.

The block served as a hub for African Americans who were moving through the area in the early 1900s, he said.

Upon leaving the meeting, Smith said he was unsure if the project would be beneficial to the neighborhood. The plot of land sits in a ward adjacent to his. 

The ward representative, Democrat Robert Sheets, had asked Smith to attend the meeting and ask questions because Sheets could not do so. 

"I don't have anything against housing, and I don't have anything against progress, but as a councilman it's my job to ask questions," Smith said.

Turner hopes to begin construction this summer. 

Board members also approved an amendment to the urban renewal plan for that area. The plan called for commercial redevelopment.

However, Wednesday's amendment stated that commercial and residential redevelopment is acceptable. This is consistent with what is already occurring in the area, Edwards said.

The Covenant House and Roark-Sullivan Lifeway Center operate in the area, and both offer institutional housing. There are also some houses in the area, Edwards said.

The authority also accepted $529,000 in Transportation Enhancement Grant funding from the state Division of Highways for a streetscape project along Washington Street West.

The project will run from Hunt Avenue to West Street, Edwards said. It will require a $120,000 match from the authority. The project will likely not get underway for about a year, he said.

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