Jennifer Hayes has been living in Charleston for three years, and she doesn’t have many kind words for the nearly barren Kmart parking lot she passes daily.
“For the longest time I didn’t know it was open,” she says. “It’s a dead space.”
City planners are developing suburban renewal zoning to remake drab, expansive parking lots into small urban centers. The new zoning would allow redevelopment — potentially stretched out over decades — to include a mix of retail, business, and residential buildings, along with increasingly important green space.
It’s not an alien idea. The City of Beaufort has developed these integrated zoning standards for its own stagnant artery highway. In a limited way, Mt. Pleasant’s Towne Centre is also an example of this walkable, community style. That project is mostly limited to commercial use, but it’s proof that open air projects are marketable and recognizable for their tree lines and neighborhood layout instead of a parking-space farm sprawled out in front of a single storefront.
The city planning department’s proposal makes for a nice picture, but some property owners who would go through this suburban rehab are saying no, no, no.
Live-work-play developments aren’t necessarily good for business, says City Councilman Tim Mallard, a commercial realtor in his day job.
“This works great on King Street downtown, but the suburbs? I don’t see how it’s going to work,” he says.
After hearing the concerns of Mallard and property owners, the city could make the suburban renewal optional for any property currently zoned general business, says Josh Martin, the city’s planning director.
These new multi-use developments are expected to dampen the drive for faster, wider roads as suburbs push farther and farther out.
“Instead of growing out, we can efficiently grow in,” Martin says.
Magnolia, the planned development on former industrial sites in the peninsula’s neck area, is an example of a mixed-use setting bringing a variety of developments together in a compact space. Martin says the planning on that project puts about 2,200 acres of potential developments on 123 acres of land.
The suburban renewal zoning is paired with city efforts on Johns Island and along Maybank Highway to avoid widening routes by creating a pattern of interconnected back roads. It’s all part of an effort to pull local traffic from the main drags.
“We’ve wanted two lane roads, not Sam Rittenbergs,” Martin says.
Sam Rittenberg Boulevard makes two appearances on a list of targeted lots: there’s the aging Citadel Mall and the strip malls that surround it; and the mess of strip malls and grocery stores at the intersection of Sam Rittenberg and Old Towne Road.
These sites, along with about 10 others, carry the same trait: acres of unused parking spaces where the best and most efficient use would be … well, anything else.
The goal is to put a variety of uses on deep lots like Kmart’s, throwing out the single-use zoning that’s guided development for decades. Instead the city wants to put large stores just off the road, with a checkerboard of mixed uses behind them — retail, business offices, and condos — with residences sitting just off the Greenway at the back of the lot, instead of the stored junk and loading docks now seen from the linear walk.
“There’s nobody that was in the wrong here,” Martin says. “The developers were just doing what the planners told them they could do. What happened was that it was all driven by transportation for so long — how do we get people there faster? How do we make roads wider?”
For some anxious commuters, that question hasn’t changed. Say “traffic calming device” to a gang of 10 and you’re likely to get at least a few groans. But others in West Ashley are more hungry for a community than a car pool lane.
Hayes often uses the West Ashley Greenway to bike from her home to the South Windermere shopping center.
“I go down there and go to yoga and the post office and the grocery store,” she says.
It’s the kind of community she’d love to have around the corner. But, as it is now, West Ashley is more like a tunnel that’s only used from nine to five for the long ride from home to work.
The city has interest from some of the targeted property owners.
“We have this sea of asphalt,” says Harry Gregorie, owner of GDC on Sam Rittenberg near the Old Towne intersection. A supporter of the city’s efforts, Gregorie says it’s similar to work Mt. Pleasant is doing around his other location on Coleman Boulevard.
“It’s not easy when you’re trying to modify a long-standing structure,” he says. “But hopefully you end up with a pedestrian-friendly and livable community.”
Others balked at an early presentation in late July.
“It looks cute on paper,” Mallard says. “But we need to be more practical.”
He’s open to making the rezoning optional, but city planners have to strictly recognize it’s just an option. Mallard says complicated negotiations like those for the St. Andrews Shopping Center are evidence that the planning staff is resistant to compromise.
While Martin understands the skepticism that comes with any rezoning, he argues this would provide more opportunities for landowners, including more density, taller buildings, reduced parking requirements, and an expedited review process. There’s also financial incentives — with future city tax dollars and federal transportation grants available for certain developments.
Improvements on the roads themselves will also be necessary, with tree lines and stylized turning lanes ensuring that the road you’re driving on is just as pleasant as the buildings you’re driving by.
City planners understand that Rome wasn’t built in a day.
“We’re not saying that you have to do this in one phase,” Martin says. “We’re just saying we feel like we need to start thinking about these sites a little more holistically.”