By early 1969, it was finally finished, 12 years after the first contract had been signed.

The Interstate 26 project, championed by U.S. Sens. Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings, cost $1.5 billion (in today’s dollars) and connected Charleston with Spartanburg.

The stretch taking the highway into Charleston was the most troublesome of the entire 200 miles. It ran along a narrowing peninsula and through an urban landscape. Rights of way had to be secured, bridges and viaducts built.

It cut a wide swath through a neighborhood, sweeping away homes and erecting barriers, before unloading traffic onto the Crosstown.

Soon, a 1.5-mile-long strip of land, mostly positioned beneath those viaducts, could be transformed into a greenway, if a new plan is realized.

The greenway would provide Lowcountry residents with pedestrian and bike paths that stretch from Mount Pleasant Street to Woolfe Street, along the unused Norfolk Southern railroad tracks.

The greenway, tentatively called the Charleston Rail Line Linear Park, would improve property in disuse, but it would do more than that, its advocates say.

It would reconnect neighborhoods, beautify the city’s major gateway and help set the stage for improving Charleston’s economic future.

There have been occasional discussions about such a project for about a decade, but little has changed.

Much of the area remains a dirt path with weeds along the sides, and it has been the scene of violent crime — far from the ideal site for a stroll or bicycle ride. The current effort is no pipe dream, though, according to its overseers and city officials.

A nonprofit has been formed called Friends of the Lowcountry Lowline, with a board of directors. A feasibility study has been completed and negotiations with Norfolk Southern, the landowner, are under way once again.

Tim Keane, director of the city’s Department of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability, said he likes the chances of the project succeeding this time.

Keane attributed his confidence to what he said was a “potentially transformative” idea, to promising negotiations with Norfolk Southern and to a public-private partnership.

“If the city were doing this alone, I would not be as optimistic,” he said.

Linear Park also is being referred to as the Lowcountry Lowline, a reference to New York City’s highly successful High Line, a one-mile greenway built atop a section of the elevated former New York Central Railroad spur called the West Side Line. The High Line has prompted a flurry of construction and business activity and provided New Yorkers with an elegant and popular alternative to walking along 10th Avenue at street level.

Still, the prospect of the Lowcountry Lowline raises questions about urban planning, gentrification and alternative transportation options such as commuter rail, said Keane and Lowline board member Ray Huff, director of the Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston.

For the project to be successful, it must not only improve upon what’s in place. It also must serve all of Charleston, especially residents who live nearby, Huff said.

Tied together

The Lowline would extend 1.5 miles and occupy seven acres, according to board president Tom Bradford, who also runs Charleston Moves, a nonprofit bicycling advocacy group.

“What this is really about is healing the city,” Bradford said, “mending the big gash that was put in it, principally by I-26.”

The corridor mostly is at the back of nearby buildings, he said.

It also can be a scary, dangerous place.

“It’s an eyesore (today), a place where people lurk. But if you can enjoyably, comfortably move north and south ... safely, from one neighborhood to another, basically you see the city once again as unified.”

And what once was an out-of-use railway passage overgrown with weeds and barricaded by chain-link fences can become an alternative “front yard” for adjacent buildings and a strip of green that makes it easier and more pleasant for residents to get around, he said.

Bradford noted that several schools are located near the proposed greenway. What’s more, clusters of commercial and residential development are springing up at either end of the proposed Lowline’s path.

A large, multi-use development called Midtown is under construction along King Street between Spring and Cannon streets. The real estate arm of Evening Post Industries, which owns The Post and Courier, is planning to develop lots around the newspaper building, beginning with the block encompassed by Columbus, Line and Meeting streets, and the old Norfolk Southern rail line, used until the early 2000s to deliver rolls of newsprint.

Ron Owens, vice president of finance for Evening Post Industries, said the first phase of development, called Courier Square, has been designed with the greenway in mind. So was the Midtown development that’s under construction nearby.

“We’re hoping that it happens,” Owens said. “We think it’s a good thing for the community.”

This cluster of development at the lower end of the proposed greenway could provide another anchor, Bradford said.

At the top end of the greenway is an area that has attracted creative entrepreneurs, restaurants, a food wholesaler and other businesses. Keane said the open space just north of Mount Pleasant Street and already controlled by the city could become a park and an upper entryway to the Lowline.

Mayor Joe Riley said he was enthusiastic about the plan, and the public-private approach to executing it.

“Down the middle of the upper peninsula, a green spine for people to walk and to jog and to bike — it will bring life and activity and pedestrian pleasure and recreation right in the heart of our city,” he said.

He and others said the greenway could provide a spur to the Cooper River Bridge and possibly to Hampton Park, extending its reach and civic impact.

Using the tracks

For years, a debate about traffic problems, public transportation and roads has included discussion of a possible commuter railway extending from Summerville to the peninsula and running, presumably, along this Norfolk Southern line. Would the greenway preclude development of a public railway transport system?

Riley says no. And he is joined by Keane and Bradford in suggesting that the Lowline would be an immediate improvement that might set the stage for such a public transportation system in the future. All said that there are no plans to fund or build a commuter rail, and that should it happen, it would take years.

Riley said rail is a project that can be pursued separately.

“I don’t think the park would preclude light rail necessarily,” he said. “There are ways to have a passenger rail, light rail, commuter rail operate adjacent to a greenway. In some places, the right of way is tight and would require creative (planning).”

Much of the corridor is only about 30 feet wide, Bradford said. But there are places, especially under the I-26 viaducts, where it widens significantly and where landscaping could include amenities.

First things first

To proceed, Friends of the Lowcountry Lowline and city officials will have to secure the property from Norfolk Southern.

In 2004, the city tried to acquire the right of way, but negotiations went nowhere. But circumstances have changed.

To be sure, Norfolk Southern will seek to maximize value for its shareholders, Director of Public Relations Robin Chapman said. The company has no plans to use the tracks again, he said. He would not comment further on the Lowline proposal, citing negotiations, but Chapman did refer to similar projects in which his company has been involved.

“Norfolk Southern elsewhere reached a deal with (the city of) Norfolk that involved cash and agreement to dedicate certain floors of a new parking garage to Norfolk Southern for its employees,” he said. Another deal transferring a right of way to the city was reached in Charlotte.

Michael Messner, a Lowline board member and equity fund manager, gave a TEDx Talk in Charleston in May in which he laid out a broad vision for a greener city that included the proposed greenway. He estimated that the Lowline project would cost about $10 million, and could be the first phase of a larger effort to improve the urban landscape.

Fundraising mostly would be the responsibility of the new nonprofit, Friends of the Lowcountry Lowline. Keane said the Lowline would run through a tax increment financing district.

This could prompt the city to sell bonds and raise money against future tax revenues that would result from urban improvement, though the city has not indicated it was considering this option.

Trails and greenways made from old rail corridors are numerous in the U.S., and well used. The 17-mile-long Burke-Gilman Trail in Seattle accommodates 2 million people annually, according to information gathered by Friends of the Lowcountry Lowline. A million people use the Capital Crescent Train in Washington, D.C., each year. The nearly 6-mile-long Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis gets more than a million users every year.

Such greenways also tend to stimulate local economies, encouraging retail and residential growth, raising property values and improving municipal tax receipts, according to data collected by Friends of the Lowcountry Lowline.

New York City’s High Line resulted in about $2 billion in new investment as a direct result of the park project, according to Scott Parker, a partner at DesignWorks in Charleston and a member of the Lowline board. The 2.5-acre Campus Martius Park in Detroit was the catalyst for more than $500 million in direct economic activity, he said.

“When we make an investment in creating a piece of the public realm, like a park, it generates tremendous amount of private activity,” Parker said. “The real win is the redevelopment that will occur around (the Lowline’s) edges as a result of this.”

Keane said the neighborhood includes low-income housing and a homeless shelter, neither of which are going away. While the greenway, if built, would make the area more attractive to middle- and upper-income residents, it would continue to have a diverse population, he said.

Besides, little else can be done with the right of way, “now seen as the back of everything,” Keane said. “I can’t see an alternative to this corridor.”

Gentrification can benefit communities, but it also poses a challenge that must be addressed early in the process, Huff said.

Several streets along Upper King Street were split in two by the I-26 viaduct.

The greenway likely would reconnect them, re-establishing easy foot and bike access across the transport corridor and healing old urban wounds, Huff said.

A well-used greenway almost certainly would make the neighborhood safer too, he and others said. But these and other improvements should be made with the best interests of residents always in mind.

“There is going to have to be some proactive way of getting buy-in from the community,” he said. “African-American habitation on the peninsula has been under assault for 100 years.” To some extent this is because of market forces, but planning also is a big factor, he said.

“Calling it (the Lowline) a great urban amenity is just not going to resonate in the community.” There must be direct economic benefits, Huff said.

For now, the raised I-26 highway in that part of the city is a “blight on the urban landscape,” Huff said, and could ultimately need to be replaced with a better solution and more inviting gateway.

“The greenway,” he said, “is the first step in the right direction.”

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook/aparkerwriter.