City Council debates sale of property to downtown college

By Ashley Barker
Published Feb. 4, 2014

Charleston City Council members discussed selling a piece of downtown property to a small college last week but struggled to agree on the contract.

The proposed transaction involves the sale of the 1.64-acre Trolley Barn property, located at 628 Meeting St., for $10 to the American College of the Building Arts.

The nonprofit institution — currently housed at the Old Charleston District Jail — offers liberal arts degrees in building trades such as architectural stone, carpentry, forged architectural ironwork, plaster working, preservation masonry and timber framing.

The property would be subdivided by the college, and the northern half would be transferred to Parallel Capital LLC, an investor in the college that has agreed to give the school $1.75 million. At least $1.5 million of that would be used to renovate the property, and the Trolley Barn portion would be restricted to use as a school of the building arts.

Mayor Joe Riley said he supports the sale because it will boost the neighborhood.

“To go from a vacant space and something that looks bad and is not encouraging to the neighborhood when you walk by, to transform that into bustling activity of students going to school is very positive to me,” Riley said. “If you don’t do this, there is no magic wand.”

Councilmember William Dudley Gregorie said he’d like to be Parallel Capital, because the transaction is the “sweetest deal that I’ve seen in quite some time.” He said the deal doesn’t appear to serve the people it needs to serve.

“I did have an opportunity to walk through (the college), and I do think what they’re doing is great,” Gregorie said. “I’m a bit uncomfortable with the deal.”

Frances Cantwell, an attorney for the city of Charleston, said the Housing Authority of Charleston initially made the jail available to the school.

A few councilmembers asked how the college could become more affordable to low-income residents in the area. Because of the Housing Authority’s cooperation, the college has agreed to offer at least one scholarship each year to a resident of the housing authority, Cantwell said.

Lt. Gen. Colby Broadwater III, president of the American College of the Building Arts, said the college distributed about $170,000 in scholarships provided by private citizens last year.

“The academics are what everybody here would want their son or daughter or grandchild to have,” Broadwater said.

The college does not have the number of students that it wants, but earning its accreditation will make that happen, according to Broadwater. He also said the $1.75 million would not be used to pay for any debt held by the college.

“We feel we can bring relevance back to that piece of Charleston,” Broadwater said. “We want to stay on the peninsula.”

After much debate, City Council decided to give the transaction a first reading and to plan a separate meeting within 10 days to clarify the contract.

Reach Ashley Barker at 843-849-3144 or @AshleyNBarker.

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