College to bring new life to historic old barn

Charleston Post and Courier
David Slade
July 27, 2009

Charleston’s historic Trolley Barn, built in 1897 to house the electric streetcars that once served the city, could become a new home for the American College of the Building Arts.

Under a deal aimed at helping the college and redeveloping the East Central neighborhood, the city plans to lease part of the building to the college for a dollar a year.

The city will consider leasing the entire building to the school in the future.

“The long-term plan is to put most of the trade classes into the Trolley Barn,” said college President Colby Broadwater. “For us, it’s a perfect space in a historic building.”

For the college, the lease arrangement is part of an ongoing effort to reduce expenses. The small liberal arts college offers programs that blend traditional academics with training in artisan building trades, such as masonry and architectural ironwork.

For the city, the college lease is part of a broader effort to redevelop several East Central properties at Meeting and Cool Blow streets.

“The area around the Trolley Barn and mattress factory has always been seen as a focus point for the neighborhood,” said Michael Maher, director of the city’s Charleston Civic Design Center.

Next door to the Trolley Barn on Meeting Street, work is under way to transform a former mattress factory into a biomedical research facility.

The city is leasing that property to the S.C. Research Authority for a dollar a year, and the authority, along with Medical University of South Carolina, is renovating the building and outfitting it with lab equipment and high-tech amenities.

The $5.5 million project is aimed at nurturing high-wage biomedical startup companies.

Across the street from the Trolley Barn, the city is pursuing a plan to purchase 2.4 acres of vacant land from SCE&G for $4.75 million, and then lease the land to the private Meeting Street Academy.

The academy would get the land for 50 years, for $10, in exchange for agreeing to build a $9 million school on the site, with a gymnasium and playground that would be available for public use after school hours.

Together, the three plans could put the nonprofit college, the biotech incubator facility and a new private school on sites in the East Central neighborhood that are currently long-vacant buildings and an empty lot.

The incubator building also would have a community meeting room and police substation.

The city acquired the Trolley Barn and mattress factory building at no cost from the S.C. Department of Transportation as part of the construction project for the Ravenel Bridge.

The Civic Design Center and the Clemson Architecture Center held public workshops in 2005 to identify the best possible uses for the Trolley Barn.

Maher said that getting a college in the Trolley Barn and an incubator site for businesses next door is in keeping with those findings.

At a City Council meeting Tuesday, the lease deal with the college received preliminary approval. Mayor Joe Riley said the college would be “a positive, wonderful activity” to have in the building, which would be good for the neighborhood.

Councilwoman Yvonne Evans, chairwoman of the Real Estate Committee, said she was pleased to see the college consolidating its activities in Charleston.

The college is in the process of moving its offices from leased space at the former Navy base in North Charleston to the Old City Jail in Charleston, which it has owned since 2000.

The college bought the jail from the Charleston Housing Authority for $3, in a deal aimed at renovating the facility, and received substantial public and private grants toward restoring the building.

The college had also purchased historic McLeod Plantation on James Island from the Historic Charleston Foundation, for $850,000, and planned to use the property for a campus.

However, the college sold McLeod Plantation back to the foundation late last year as part of a plan to shore up finances. The college’s financial condition has been a roadblock to winning accreditation.

The college will now be headquartered in the Old City Jail, and is leasing a location on James Island for trade classes.

Broadwater said the long-term plan is to locate all college activities in the Old City Jail and the Trolley Barn.

“It makes sense fiscally, and puts us in two historic buildings,” he said.

The institution got its start in 1998 as the School of the Building Arts. It became the College of the Building Arts in 2005, and graduated its first class, comprised of seven students, this spring.

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