North Charleston â€” its historic urban core along the Cooper River, anyway — is playing a whole new ballgame for the 21st century.
Though Charleston proper has long been the local star player in terms of culture and livability, if the Noisette Company and other community and civic leaders have their way, North Charleston will end this season as “most improved,” if not a dark horse MVP, in the Lowcountry League.
Not that anyone is keeping score, of course.
The closing of the Navy base in 1996 brought troubled times to the south of North Charleston. People left the area, jobs were scarce, and many properties stood unoccupied for lack of interest. The image of blight began to settle in many local minds — this became the area to avoid, the bad part of town, a place that Bruce Springsteen could have sung about — an American downtown falling away; all desolation and doors being closed.
Yet today there is talk of restoration, of infill and green solutions not only for this historic section of North Charleston — an area that many hadn’t even realized was historic — but also solutions for taming the rampant sprawl at work in the tri-county region today.
In 2001, the City of North Charleston announced their public-private partnership with Noisette. The expectation was to achieve a city-within-a-city, a model community for the historic but troubled urban core. North Charleston and Noisette recently cut financial ties with one another but both are adamant that the revitalization, as planned, move forward.
Progress toward that goal is being watched carefully, not only locally, but literally all around the world.
John L. Knott Jr., CEO and president of the Noisette Company, is an active keynote speaker these days, invited to economic and environmental conferences to share his thoughts on sustainable development and the reclamation of those urban landscapes — like the south of North Charleston — that had suffered most from the military-industrial complex excesses of the 20th century.
Those who plan and build, especially the more eco-conscious among them, have actually been watching Knott for quite some time. In the early ’90s, he came to the Charleston area for the development of Dewees Island — a development that was met with criticism at first but soon was recognized as a national model of sustainability for its use of recycled materials, minimal disturbance of natural spaces, and storm hazard design.
The Noisette Company’s plan for breathing life back into North Charleston’s urban core has also been met with criticism — criticism of the pace of changes (it is, after all, a 20-plus year project) as well as financial concerns.
Knott takes a philosophical stance, acknowledging both support and criticism as natural companions of change, particularly when that change is so large in scale. “One day the media says you are great, the next day they call you a boondoggle,” he says, referencing the City Paper Best of Charleston awards for 2006, which labeled Noisette the Best Boondoggle. “You have to maintain a sense of humor about it.”
A New Focal Point for Arts, Environment, and Education
As more and more of the plan becomes visible, not just on paper but in the community, the potential of this project to not only restore a local urban core, but also to serve as a world-class model of environmental-sustainable design, is becoming apparent.
The footprint of the Noisette plan encompasses several key neighborhoods in North Charleston, including Liberty Hill, Olde North Charleston, Cameron Terrace/Oak Park, North East Park Circle, Palmetto Gardens, and Whipper Barony. In his trademark style, however, Knott is thinking beyond the immediate area of the plan, envisioning how the renewed energy of the waterfront city-within-a-city could work in concert with surrounding areas to create a thriving whole.
“There is a historical richness to this place,” Knott says. “Then you layer on top of that this sustainable development, this 21st century idea, and you have something that deeply complements Charleston. Together, they can complement each other and become a major North American architectural and cultural model.”
The pieces of the master plan that have been built already — Riverfront Park and 10 Storehouse Row on the Navy Yard, as well as the renovated historic business district on East Montague Avenue, between Park Circle and the Cooper River — are considered spurs for the rebirth of the entire urban core, much as renovations around Market and King streets helped lift Charleston out of a slump in the last fourth of the 20th century.
“Many of the same things that Charleston had during its own revitalization are here as well,” says Noisette spokesman Keith West. “This is an area many feared would just blow away and be gone. Now it’s on the verge of coming to the forefront.”
“The improvements to the streetscape on East Montague are fantastic,” notes Michelle Desjardins, general manager at Madra Rua Irish Pub, a business that is already bearing witness to a renewed interest in the area. “It makes a good impression on future residents, those traveling through, as well as on those already living here.”
How big are the changes that are likely to occur for the area if all goes as planned? The population of North Charleston could increase by a third over the next decade. Significant money is being invested in the public schools to attract families and young professionals to the area. And higher education facilities, in particular those specific to the project needs — i.e. building arts, restoration, and urban planning — are either in place already or on the drawing board.
The American College of the Building Arts, for example, has begun classes at 10 Storehouse Row, teaching hands-on architectural stonework and ironwork, timber framing, carpentry, plaster work, and masonry.
“It helps to bring in young professionals,” says Dan Coleman, president of the Olde North Charleston Neighborhood Council. “They mix well with folks who have been here for decades and they bring new energy to the community.”
And that is precisely the crowd that will be drawn to the area when the Clemson University Restoration Institute brings its restorative science programs to the former Navy base. While Charleston is the site for the Clemson Architecture Center’s design and planning studios, the North Charleston campus will feature research and development laboratories and provide students with the opportunity to learn at the Warren E. Lasch Conservation Center, site of the H. L. Hunley submarine.
In addition to providing classroom space for the next generation of builders, the renovated warehouse at 10 Storehouse Row is already attracting top commercial photographers and fine artists who are looking for studio or office space. The idea is for it to become a new hub for both education and arts.
Key to the restoration of the area, of course, and harkening back to the chosen name of the company, Noisette (homage to both botanist Philippe Noisette and Noisette Creek), is environmental reclamation. That’s the tricky part.
The Cooper River and its tributaries suffered far worse from the 20th century’s industrial onslaught than did its sister to the west, the Ashley. With key marshes and creeks steeped in decades of runoff and pollutants and choked by invasive plants and trash, those who take on the task of the restoration phase of the Noisette Preserve Plan have their work cut out for them. The restoration phase is expected to take at least three to five years and an enormous amount of cleanup.
The end result, it is hoped, will include an interpretive nature center overlooking Noisette Creek, walking and bicycling trails, and a native plant nursery.
“It can move forward, but there are a lot of people and entities involved,” Knott says. “We are going to be able to start laying out some of the pathways so people can start to get involved with the preserve.”
Those at Noisette are quick to point out that the master plan for the city-within-a-city pays respect to a number of historical antecedents, including the original 1913 design by William Bell Marquis, who himself followed the English Garden City style of Ebenezer Howard. Additionally, the general area of the Noisette footprint is similar to that of North Charleston when it first incorporated in 1973.
The Olde North Charleston Neighborhood Council has already expressed interest in taking the lead by suggesting a historic overlay district and conservation plan to preserve the distinct feel of their Arts and Crafts bungalows. While the style is younger than the architecture of many parts of downtown Charleston, neighborhood council president Dan Coleman notes that the bungalow is gaining acceptance as a significant American style and should warrant preservation.
A plan has already been drafted for presentation to City Council, but some residents of the neighborhood, including contractor Tony Gentile, caution against moving forward on plans before all involved have had a chance to make a decision. “There needs to be an even playing field,” Gentile says. “I don’t think a small group of citizens should dictate what happens.”
To raise awareness of the specifics of the proposed plan, he has been hand-delivering copies of the proposal throughout the neighborhood, but admits that it may not change numbers by much when it comes to a vote.
“People get busy,” he says. “They don’t follow up and make their voice heard. It’s a tough situation.”
Trucks, a mainstay of having nearby industrial sites on the Cooper River, are another concern. No thru-truck traffic signs have been put up to deter truckers from taking a shortcut through the neighborhoods.
“We do need to be vigilant,” notes North Charleston City Councilman Kurt Taylor. “The access road is important.” Easy access to I-526 on Virginia Avenue is expected to minimize the problem, though residents say that it does not eliminate it.
Traffic problems are nothing new for the Lowcountry, of course. North Charleston residents are among those familiar with the problems that can result from gridlock as more homes are built, as more and more people move into growing areas.
“There is a big real estate push nationally,” says Philip Hyman, an artist and past president of the Palmetto Gardens Neighborhood Association. “It’s not only happening in North Charleston. Look at downtown Charleston. I just went to the mountains in Virginia and North Carolina, and there were real estate advertisements as soon as you get to the main roads. This is everywhere.”
North Charleston City Councilman Sam Hart has been carefully looking at the stretch of East Montague that runs through his neighborhood of Liberty Hill. A proposal to narrow the road from four to two lanes from Park Circle to the rail line just east of Rivers Avenue in order to beautify the streetscape could impact the parishioners traveling to and from the many churches of the community. He also asks that CARTA buses, which have to make stops to pick up riders, be taken into consideration.
“There are some problems that we have to look at,” he says. “But as the councilman for this area, I will abide by the findings of the traffic study.”
While Hart adds that as a citizen and resident, he would prefer Montague Avenue to remain four lanes through Liberty Hill to prevent problems with traffic congestion, he does not anticipate that changes to the streetscape will detract from the character of the historic neighborhood.
“The old and the new can go together,” he says. “As long as the new blends in with what is already here so we can keep our heritage.”
What gives a neighborhood life, of course, are the people who live there. Their stories — why they themselves chose one place over another and how they feel about the changes that occur over time — are of key importance.
Here, then, in their own words, are the stories of some of the people in the neighborhoods in and around Park Circle:
David and Hanna Goss inOlde North Charleston
“We had a house in Wagener Terrace for about seven years. The issue of more space was always on the table. We talked about different ways we could have expanded that house, but it really wasn’t something that was financially feasible for us.
“This area represents the same opportunity as Wagener Terrace but gave us more space. In terms of cost, it was essentially a swap, and we added 600 square feet of living space as well as a one-and-a-half story workshop.
“We moved here in April ’04. In August, I [David] was nominated to be an officer of the neighborhood council. I’ve been vice president for almost two years.
“We became actively involved in the neighborhood because, as soon as we got here, the port expansion on the base sort of got thrown into sharp relief. We went out and actually got members from other neighborhood associations together for ‘Hold the Port to Its Promises.’
“We made some suggestions, trying to get the Corps of Engineers to come into the neighborhoods and to put the EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) into everyday language, to make it accessible.
“Basically, we were just saying that if they’re going to expand that they have to follow through on the obligations that were made and the memorandum of understanding agreement with respect to the direct access to I-26, the rail overpasses, and keeping truck traffic out of the neighborhood.
“And there are other things that have been going on in the background. Things are going to become more and more visible as time goes on. It takes time. We’re big supporters of Noisette and we’re interested in that ongoing evolution.
“Some people are very impatient about Noisette. This is, after all, a 25-year master plan, but for some people that means 25 minutes. They’re frustrated that there isn’t more to see.
“But if you were able to go by the opening celebration for 10 Storehouse Row, to see the businesses that are in there, or just to look at the facility, how they’ve transformed that warehouse — it’s phenomenal.
“Development is opening up this neighborhood and the prices are going up, too. But for someone willing to put in sweat equity, there are still opportunities here.”
About the neighborhood: Olde North Charleston, often called the Old Village by residents, features a traditional “Main Street” style business district on East Montague Avenue that is a key focal point for dining and socializing in the North area.
Gayle Frampton inNorth East Park Circle
“They used some of the heart pine timbers from the old North Charleston Elementary School in the new building. The morning sun comes up on the east side and it floods the school with light through all those windows. A lot of time the teachers don’t have to have a lot of electric light in their classrooms because the light is flooding in from outside.
“Isn’t it wonderful that they build buildings with windows now? That they don’t have them like brick boxes?
“This is the same school that I went to, my husband went to, and all of our children went to. It’s a new building but it really incorporates the old with the new.
“My husband and I met in high school, started dating, and he’s been my steady beau ever since. When we married I said that I’d go as far as Filbin Creek and no further. I was true to my word. This part of North Charleston is my home.
“It was very traumatic for people here when the Navy base closed. So many families in this area, including my own, have people that worked at the Navy yard or served in the military there. I guess we took for granted that the base would always be here. The military people always had a can-do attitude and they brought so much to our community. When we realized that they were leaving, it was almost like grief because so many families were affected.
“MeadWestvaco helped so much in that transition. Had it not been for them, we would have really felt the economic crunch when the base closed. It was sort of the anchor at this end of North Charleston that allowed many people to still have jobs.
“Having said that, the Navy base did sit for a while, and I know that our mayor was discouraged when people did not start coming right away to develop that property.
“And I do understand the predicament that presented. Enough time had passed that somebody was going to come along and develop it. And Noisette was the one that did that. And we are happy that developers came, but I think that people who live in the neighborhoods are taking a wait-and-see attitude about the Noisette Company. Even without them, it was time for things to turn around for North Charleston. But I will say that because they came in, it was a catalyst for change. That’s the distinction I want to make. They’re the developers and they’ve been helpful — they’ve taken a large part — but the city is really first.”
About the neighborhood: Bordered by Filbin Creek and the old GARCO industrial site, North East Park Circle retains much of its WWII-era neighborly feel as well as 21st century touches including the state’s first LEED-certified sustainable school.
The New Old Business District
Aside from Riverfront Park, custom-made for open-air concerts on the Cooper River, with its Admiral’s Pier for fishing and crabbing, and Storehouse Row, which promises to be the new hub of creative arts in North Charleston, the most exciting changes can be found in the historic business district along East Montague Avenue, from Park Circle to the waterfront. Call it a throwback to traditional main streets of old or a mini-King Street where you can actually find a parking space, but do check it out. Here’s what to look for:
Aunt Bea’s Restaurant
1050 E. Montague Ave.
Mon-Fri: 11 a.m.–2 p.m.; Tues: 5-8 p.m.
A meat-and-three Southern classic — the kind of place where fried chicken and sweet tea are the basic building blocks of life.
Idle Hour Restaurant
1065 E. Montague Ave.
Mon-Fri: 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sat: 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
An easygoing place for burgers and sandwiches that has been on the block for 64 years.
Johnny’s Olde Village Grill & Spirits
1042 E. Montague Ave.
Mon-Fri: 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Some say the best burger in the local area can be had here — you decide.
Madra Rua Irish Pub
1034 E. Montague Ave.
Daily: 11 a.m.-2 a.m.
The place to down a pint while watching soccer, rugby, or Aussie-rules football.
Park Circle Coffee ‘n Cream
1078 E. Montague Ave.
Mon-Fri: 7 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat: 8 a.m.-2 p.m.
Open for breakfast, vegetarian selections available, and exquisite Greenwood ice cream to beat the heat!
Bella Bella Beauty Boutique
1044 E. Montague Ave.
Tues./Thurs./Fri: 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Wed: 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat: 8 a.m.-3 p.m.
Star treatment hair care and makeovers, artistic and individualized.
Soca Day Spa
1043 E. Montague Ave.
Mon./Tues./Thurs./Sat: 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; Wed: 9 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sun: 12 p.m.-5 p.m.
Get rubbed the right way — or scrubbed and wrapped, per your preference.
1049 E. Montague Ave.
Mon-Sat: 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
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City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.