It’s a Tuesday morning at Vintage, a sweet little coffee shop off Coleman Boulevard. Lattes are artfully swirled and the killer avocado toast is crusty-mush perfection. Plenty of yoga-ready moms (and a few dads) are fueling up, meanwhile their kids (emphasis on the plural) seem already caffeinated, clamoring up and down the slide that’s a huge hit in the café’s backyard sipping/dining area-slash-playground.
“My god, it’s like Romper Room out here,” says my meeting date, who is not from Mt. Pleasant.
After one rambunctious tyke runs up and tugs on her purse, she’s a bit taken aback by the chaotic, if cute, evidence of Mt. P’s reproductive prowess, yet as one who’s lived here for two decades (and wishes there’d been hip kid-friendly coffee shops back when I was lugging diaper bags), I’m well aware of the noticeable uptick in strollers and young families. Even the more established neighborhoods of Old Mt. Pleasant and the Old Village — areas that have long been home to a mix of generations and races but have typically skewed more retirement than starter-home — now seem younger and wealthier and whiter than ever.
Brave the Farmers Market on Tuesday afternoons just across Coleman Boulevard, and be ready to dodge Kettle Korn-crazed kids en route to your Johns Island tomatoes. First world problems, to be sure, and evidence of a healthy, vibrantly growing community, which is to be celebrated. But that growth has a cost.
The numbers bear out these coffee shop, curbside observations. According to the Town of Mt. Pleasant’s (TOMP) 2017 Community Profile demographics report based on US Census Bureau data, the town’s population in 2000 was 47,609, of which 7.3 percent were “Black or African American”; average family size was 2.99 and average median household income was $61,054, and median house value was $185,500.
In 2015 (the most recent data), the town’s population was 74,952, of which 4.6 percent were “Black or African American”; average family size was 3.05 and median household income was $77,638, with the median house value $372,000.
The morning scene here at Vintage, a newish hotspot in a charming old cottage serving menu items and clientele that are anything but “vintage,” seems an apt-if-ironic microcosm of the rapidly altering landscape in Mt. Pleasant. What used to be a dozy fishing village is now one of the region’s fastest growing municipalities. Now that vintage is vogue, the vintage begins to vanish.
Indeed, the Town of Mt. Pleasant (TOMP) hypes a nostalgia-tinged appeal — Boone Hall’s antebellum oak allee; Shem Creek’s hardy shrimper aesthetic; Pitt Street’s picture- perfect postcard, with a handspun milkshake to boot. But while there is plenty quaint and charming about modern day Mt. Pleasant, including the walkable, bikable, safe, interconnected, convenient, and friendly neighborhood that I’ve been fortunate enough to raise my family in, the veil of its suburban idealism is thin, and to some, growing thinner. Beyond the Old Village, which is protected by strict Historical Commission zoning, much of what counted as “character” in this 45.28 square miles of mostly vertical corridor between Charleston and Awendaw has, arguably, disappeared.
Anybody remember Heath Farms, right across Simmons Street from Vintage, purveyor of fresh local vegetables, Mrs. Sassard’s relishes, home-baked bread, and decadent chess squares long before there was a Farmers Market? Or what about the Hobby Shop with a hand-scrawled sign advertising “Models” above its crumbling façade on the opposite street corner? Or the old drive-through “cash and carry” beer and booze shop where Mike’s Bikes is now? And I do miss the kitschy seashell gift store with its wacky mini-golf on Ben Sawyer Boulevard that bit the dust, because Lord knows we need another CVS.
All the above-mentioned points of local color, now gone, are east of Highway 17, while the Town’s northern corridor, from Central Mt. Pleasant and the Towne Centre environs east and up, has seen the largest development impact over the last decade. Hop over to Barnes & Nobles to pick up a beach-read and you can’t help but swallow hard when seeing the acres upon acres of former woodlands flattened to make way for the massive Indigo Square for 456 multi-family dwellings and a 123-room hotel.
A TOMP five-page spreadsheet (updated 1/31/17) of “recently” approved residential and mixed use developments lists 63 development projects totaling 3,786 acres; the largest being Carolina Park (2,030 residential units), Central Mt. Pleasant (605 residential units), Oyster Point (592 residential units), and the aforementioned Indigo Park. All but 19 of the 63 projects are in Central Mt. Pleasant and north. In older Mt. Pleasant, the biggies are The Boulevard (phase 2, 105 multifamily units), The Tides IV (55 units) and Bridgeside II (573 multifamily units). Cranes may be dominating the peninsula skyline, but bulldozers are digging in East of the Cooper.
Cool the nostalgia
“It’s complicated,” says Amy Barrett, an urban planning professional who has lived in the area for the last 10 years and now heads the South Carolina office of the Urban Land Institute. We’re stuck with a car-centric culture thanks to the Federal Highway Act of 1956 and decades of automotive and oil industry leverage, cheap gas, and a 1970s-era cul-de-sac-for-all development model. But bemoaning the olden days of two lane roads with no traffic doesn’t help, she suggests.
“We have plenty of lessons to learn from the last 50 years, but I’m suspect of a nostalgic angle,” says Barrett. “Public conversations about development and land use are often already emotional anyway, adding on a layer of nostalgia makes it even more difficult.” Plus, she adds, “the good ol’ days were never as good as we thought they were, and the present isn’t quite as bad as we make it out to be, right?”
Growth is not necessarily bad, Barrett points out. “Growth strengthens our schools, brings in people with new ideas and enthusiasm for living here, people who want to dig in and give back and be part of this place — those are all good things,” she says. “Newcomers are a positive asset leading to economic and cultural investment, if we’re open to it. I don’t think growth has to be scary. The issue is how we handle it.”
How indeed. At Town Council meetings and in coffee shops and informal gatherings and on social media, grumblings about traffic and debates about density are ubiquitous, with special interest groups like Save Shem Creek frequently stirring the pot. What’s not debatable: large-scale tract development stretching out almost to Awendaw is a textbook example of suburban sprawl.
Diane Lauritsen is far from the only East Cooper resident and community activist who feels that how the town’s growth has and is being handled leaves much to be desired. According to Lauritsen, quirky landmarks (long-live the dinosaur from the old mini-golf) are not all that’s vanished; a sense of cohesive community has too.
“Mt. Pleasant-style development has created a town of enclaves and subdivisions, not a connected community,” says Lauritsen. With the exception of I’On and some neighborhoods planned in Central Mt. Pleasant, most of the town’s developments are not interconnected and have only one entry/exit on to Highway 17. One traffic jamming result: it’s nearly impossible for the majority of the 4,068 students at Wando High School to bike or walk to school, even many who live within two miles of it.
Despite the popularity of areas like I’On and Old Mt. Pleasant where residents can get to work, stores, and school without getting into a car, that’s not the type of new development being approved by a Town Council increasingly pressured by constituents to curtail growth. Ironically, notes East Cooper resident Alys Campaigne, “The backlash to growth threatens the very things long-time residents seek to preserve. Pushing for larger lot sizes, more parking, and limiting ADUs (accessory dwelling units) sends sprawling development to the suburban fringe and contributes to sky-rocketing costs of living. New high impact fees on businesses keep residents commuting beyond town limits to find work.”
The solution is not to stop building, says Barrett. “The solution is to keep building better and more responsibly,” she argues. A moratorium focuses on keeping people out, which is not really the goal, she argues; but even worse, it drives up costs. “That’s a huge blow to anything related to affordability, and lack of affordability is already a serious issue. Talk about vanishing Mt. Pleasant,” Barrett says. “One thing often forgotten when we talk about the high price of housing is that it’s about scarcity too. The more you restrain supply, the higher prices go.”
Mt. Pleasant’s dearth of affordable housing and the onslaught of development are issues of deep concern to long-time resident, community leader, and former Town Council member Thomasena Stokes-Marshall, who in 1988 became the Town’s first African American elected official. During her tenure, she chaired the Town’s Planning Committee and championed the needs of senior citizens (the Senior Center bears her name). Stokes-Marshall lives in Snowden, a historically African-American community off Long Point Road, where she was born and where her family has lived for generations. Between real estate battles in her own neighborhood and those in the Six Mile community as well as Scanlonville near Remley’s Point, she’s less worried about Old Mt. Pleasant losing points of local color than the Town losing its historic communities of color.
During her time on Council, Stokes-Marshall spearheaded the creation of the Sweetgrass Overlay District in 2011, to protect basket stands along Highway 17 as well as the African-American communities around the Six Mile community where many basket weavers live and work. “We did not want existing characteristics of that settlement community changed,” says Stokes-Marshall, who worked with fellow council and community members and town and county administrators (facilitated by the Coastal Community Foundation) to pass special zoning laws to protect the Sweetgrass Overlay District. “But fast forward to today, and changes in mayor and council members, and developer after developer approaching council requesting either zoning changes or to have property removed from the Overlay District category, and that’s opened the way for lots of unintended uses, and a slow chipping away of the community,” she says.
The threat extends beyond the Sweetgrass/Six Mile areas, where large-scale developments like Oyster Point off Rifle Range are changing the fabric of the historically black community. Many families in Mt. Pleasant’s former freedman’s communities (i.e. Scanlonville, Six Mile, Snowden, and the Phillips community straddling Highway 41) despite having lived on the same land for generations, may not own a clear title to their land, leaving them vulnerable in real estate transactions. These so-called heirs properties are easy targets for developers looking to buy up land below market price, notes Stokes-Marshall and others. The fact that many of these properties are in pockets that are under Charleston county jurisdiction but not the Town’s makes them more susceptible.
“The developers come in, get a foothold, and then it goes from there,” she says. In other instances, the development approval process seems weighted against those whose voice may not hold as much sway, Stokes-Marshall suggests. Case in point: a Council agenda item to approve increase building heights for a proposed hotel near Coleman and Chuck Dawley Boulevards was vehemently opposed and defeated. “Less than a month later the developers come into the African American community on Venning Road, and (Council) approves two new hotels with the increased height,” says Stokes-Marshall. “Why is it okay for one residential community but not another?”
To better watchdog and preserve the integrity of these vulnerable communities, Stokes-Marshall recently has led the charge to form a 501 (c)3 called the African American Settlement Community Historic Division. Her group has met with TOMP officials and those at Mt. Pleasant Waterworks, BCD-COG, and Charleston County to make sure everyone is aware of the need for stepped-up protection and “all have been supportive,” she reports. Ultimately she hopes that language aimed at protecting these settlement communities will be incorporated in the town’s and county’s Comprehensive Plans. That didn’t happen with the Sweetgrass Overlay District, she says. Nonetheless, protective measures can be effective.
“There is precedent here in the Town of Mt. Pleasant, with the Old Village Historic Commission, which is sanctioned by the Town and made up of lay people and urban planning professionals. Those requests go in front of historic commission and laws, regulations and zoning codes determine what can and cannot be done. We’re not asking for anything more or less than what’s been done in the Old Village,” she says.
“What I’m seeing is development decisions being made in a vacuum,” adds Stokes-Marshall, “and the residents who stand to be negatively impacted the most are the last ones to know.”
That trend, not to mention the Town’s lack of affordable housing (“It’s utterly ridiculous, they could care less about the ordinary Joe or Jane who needs a decent place to live,” says Stokes-Marshall) are parts of Mt. Pleasant that she and others would be glad to see start to vanish.
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