Is Charleston facing a bright new future, or are we — as preservationists and planners and conservationists claim — on the precipice of an era of unchecked regional development?
Regardless of what side you’re on — growth or protection — there is no question that a lot of major development projects are underway on the peninsula and beyond.
In the not-so-distant future, the downtown skyline will soon be home to a new MUSC tower as the school’s hospital doubles in size, and may be kept company by two eight-story buildings proposed for the area around Marion Square — a hotel on the site of the former Charleston County Library and a mixed-use building at the corner of King and Calhoun streets, where Millennium Music currently is.
But not all the major projects on the peninsula will center around the former site of The Citadel, as the redevelopment of Ansonborough Field (nee Liberty Park) begins, or the condo complex in front of the Comfort Inn near the Connector’s terminus is completed, or ground is broken on the Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston (CACC).
Work will also begin at “Midtown” — the name-for-the-moment of the four-acre plot bordered by King, Meeting, Spring, and Cannon streets, slated to become a multiple-building, mixed-use development — and the former Cooper River bridges site.
Farther up the peninsula in The Neck, Robert Clement III is leading a trio of companies gearing up to build a light industrial park facing the Cooper River and a new neighborhood/community, Magnolia, with as many as 8,000-11,000 housing units, facing the Ashley River on the other side of King and Meeting street extensions.
Clement says his company will begin selling lots on Magnolia as early as this spring and will be done cleaning the Macalloy superfund site by this summer.
Next door, atop steeping landfills and in the shadow of the new Cooper River Bridge, the Ginn Company (Patriot’s Point, Celebration, Fla.) has floated a trial balloon for a golf resort that, they’ve sworn to City Hall, won’t be a gated community. They even purchased 125 acres near Morris Island just last week.
Across the new bridge, the coastline of the Cooper River is hardening with the Tides’ high-end condos, even as the Town of Mt. Pleasant works toward its own public waterfront park.
Across the old bridges in West Ashley, the condofication of the suburbs continues as developers rush to build enough second-home condos for the well-heeled of Kiawah and beyond who want a pied-a-terre that’s convenient to downtown and shopping, even if it is 40 feet in the air.
The Once-Onceler’s non-stop, self-perpetuating stupidity machine of Hwy. 61, where more houses beget more and more shopping which begets more housing and so on, continues to rumble along and in front of strands of ancient trees. Where is the Lorax when you need him?
Probably in the same place where all of the region’s affordable housing stock is bleeding off to, as apartment complex after apartment complex “goes condo,” witness the Meridian in Mt. Pleasant, making it harder and harder for working and middle-class families to find shelter.
Johns Island, already under a deluge of new-home construction, is holding its collective breath as the politicos get around to the looming battle of completing the Mark Clark 526 Expressway.
Johns Island is no longer home to virgin farming soil thanks to developers, especially if enough political will can be mustered this year to start building the expressway across the island that gave birth to “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” and “We Shall Overcome.”
In one of the toughest municipalities, N. Charleston, a little rain is falling on its plans to build Noisette, a mixed-use, higher density redevelopment of the old naval base and parts of Park Circle, as Mayor Keith Summey finally had to admit earlier this year that he never got any financial background checks on the project’s leader.
Still, projects like Mixson Avenue in North Chuck may yet prove there is a way to construct urban infill projects off the peninsula. But the handling of port redevelopment at the base could ultimately help the city blossom, or drive a nail into it as a desirable destination for the middle class and outsiders who can’t afford the sheen of downtown’s historic cache.
We are told by Tony Bartelme of The Post and Courier that 113,000 housing units are either on planning boards or are already permitted across the region, which could bring as many as 240,000 more people to the area. It’s beginning to look more and more like we might match Charlotte’s current population by the year 2030.
DaimlerChrysler, which left the region at the altar earlier this century, has announced its intentions to build Sprinter delivery and transport vans at a yet-to-be-constructed plant in the hinterlands, which could bring about the construction of miniature towns surrounding it.
“We don’t have a clue as to what’s about to hit us,” says Dana Beach, the executive director of the Coastal Conservation League and one of the foremost opponents of sprawl. “And yet, I would say most of what’s coming is very encouraging — it’s great we’re getting more housing downtown, and that they are redeveloping The Neck.
“And while it’s great that the right employer is going to be in the right place by the airport,” says Beach, referring to a Vought/Aleni airplane plant slated to supply Boeing planes with parts, “what we still do not have is any regional planning on any level.”
Beach “screeches” (his word) that the Council of Government (COG), a regional planning board with a representative from all the local municipalities sitting on its board, “is noticeable in the planning process by its absence.”
Beach says the lack of a needed $5 million comprehensive assessment of what’s coming down the pike, one that includes everything from transportation studies to infrastructure planning, could doom what looks like a promising future.
For instance, Beach claims that COG is using a traffic model for the redevelopment of the port that will under-predict the number of vehicle trips there by two-thirds.
Beach says the CCL is taking a somewhat pro-business approach to the coming development boom: “Just do it … but do it right.”
For Tim Keane, the former head of planning for the City of Charleston and now a planner and designer in the public sector, the issue is more basic.
“Before we can have cogent regional planning, we, somebody, has to be able to describe what the ‘region’ is,” says Keane from his Meeting Street design studio. “So far, no one can say, ‘The region is this.'”
To Keane’s eyes, and professional sensibilities, the region is more than Charleston County, or the traditional tricounty Charleston-Berkeley-Dorchester area.
“Right now, we are doing regional rationing — trying to get everyone enough growth and roads to be happy,” he says, his tongue appreciably looser now that he no longer works for The Man, Mayor Joe Riley.
But Keane, who helped craft the City’s comprehensive plan, is still ready to fight some of Riley’s battles. Especially when he hears arguments about stopping taller buildings from surrounding Marion Square.
“We all need to calm down and not get hysterical — no one is talking about building Charlotte-style skyscrapers,” he says.
Cynthia Jenkins, the current executive director of the 85-year-old Preservation Society of Charleston, is beside herself when it comes to the possibility that City Hall may allow two eight-story buildings to be constructed on the former downtown site of the county library and atop the current Millennium Music site.
Jenkins is afraid that City Hall has lost sight of the three- and four-story scale of the city’s historic district, and all of the success and tourist dollars it has brought, by approving height variations for those two proposed projects. She already considers the peninsula’s “hospital neighborhood” with MUSC’s new tower to be “lost.”
Jenkins seems stricken with a sense of impending doom after the City’s Board of Architectural Review (BAR), in her opinion, recently decided to give initial approval to the Bennet-Hofford hotel/library project based on its $50-million economic impact rather than its architectural merits.
Jenkins claims, seemingly incorrectly upon further inspection, that taller buildings have not historically been a part of Charleston’s skyline. She seems not to take into account the Francis Marion Hotel, which, at 165 feet and 15 stories, towers over the downtown park. Or the Ft. Sumter House hotel, which was constructed on the hallowed Battery three years after the Preservation Society was founded here.
Or the 93-foot, seven-story Mills House Hotel re-creation, built in 1968, or the 113-foot federal building on the west side of Marion Square.
Robert Stockton, a professor of historic preservation at the College of Charleston and member of BAR, agrees with Jenkins that building bigger buildings could be ruinous from a design standpoint.
“When you allow for height, that is what draws, or shocks, the eye,” says Stockton, who, nevertheless, voted for the height, mass, and scale of the contentious and ultracontemporary Clemson Architecture Center recently.
But if there is one thing everyone interviewed for this story agrees on, it’s that without regional planning, the “region” — whatever that turns out to be — is in for an interesting 20 years.
Which is why in the coming year, you’ll be reading a lot more about planning in these pages. That’s a promise.
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