If Tim Keane could get anything out of this article, he hopes it would be stopping local developers from coming up to him while he’s standing in line at Starbucks, and saying, “Hey, Tim, I got this development I need to get ‘densed’ up.”
From 1999 to January of this year, Keane served as the director of the Department of Neighborhoods and Planning for the City of Charleston. When he tired of the bureaucracy and got out of the public’s wallet and into private practice, the trained architect and urban planner became a target for developers who were confident he could get their latest slash-and-burn projects approved by City Hall.
Problem is, though, that’s the last thing in the world Keane would ever want to do, even though he could probably make scads of money doing so.
For the past 11 months, Keane and designer Jacob Lindsey have run Keane & Co., a two-man urban planning firm, from a Meeting Street storefront. The duo hope to attract clients who want help imbuing their projects with a denser, more vital urbanism — and not attract clients who just bought Farmer John’s family plot and want to level it and put up rows upon rows of McMansions.
“We just figured there are enough people out there who can do Ye Olde Southern Southern Living neighborhoods better than we can,” snorts Keane, whose small company has taken on a variety of projects located between Savannah and Charleston since he stepped down as one of Mayor Joe Riley’s right-hand men.
Besides, designing infill projects, ones that go into urban areas, are the ones that get Keane and Lindsey’s collective engine running.
Presently, Keane and Lindsey are working on designing the size and flow of buildings that may one day inhabit the “Midtown” stretch of downtown a few blocks from their office. Rumors have swirled around the $10 million, 4-acre site — roughly bordered by King, Meeting, Spring, and Cannon streets — since local developer Robert Clement III bought it a few years ago after an ambitious College of Charleston’s basketball arena project was scrapped.
Keane says those “good ol’ boys” who regularly accost him while he’s waiting for his vente Sumatra all hoped the site would get a “wedding cake” — a single building that shoots straight up, perfect for another hotel like Charleston Place.
Well, Bubba, tough luck, because Keane and company are leaning toward a series of smaller buildings, designated for various uses, laid out around existing streets and light rail tracks.
“I had one of those Charleston moments earlier this year when I was walking down Broad Street and saw what I think of as a typical Ohio family out sightseeing. The dad was wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers sweatshirt, the whole bit.
“And it struck me then, that I’m living in a place that’s not creating ‘the next thing.’ That no one comes here thinking, ‘the future is happening in Charleston.'”
While the Old Village resident has no problem with history, Keane just wants to help take Charleston in a new direction, much in the same way he tried to do when helping City Hall draft its Century V plan.
Now with projects in Beaufort, Mt. Pleasant, N. Charleston, and on the peninsula, Keane has his chance to make his mark.
Then again, perhaps Keane has already made his mark — even if it’s only been a tonsorial one.
“Tell Tim the only reason I hired him was all the women over here think he has good hair,” jokes Vince Graham, president of the I’On Group, which hired Keane’s company to help develop Mixson Avenue — a 44-acre, 950-unit redevelopment in N. Charleston bordering Olde North Charleston and the rough and tumble Liberty Hill neighborhood.
Seriously, Graham respected what he sees as Keane’s keen skills as an urbanist who immediately understood what his company, which has won kudos and awards for its work at I’On, was trying to do with Mixson.
“What we’re talking about here is what we now refer to as ‘post new-urbanism,'” says Graham, fully aware he’s wandering off into a wonkish wonderland of words. “Very low scale acres, low height, high density neighborhoods. It’s more like a medieval village than anything else.”
Graham says the reason why the Bubbas of the world don’t follow suit is because the market to do the same old thing in real estate development “is so good, an idiot can make money at it.”
“It’s also a combination of the industry’s inertia and governments still not crafting zoning codes that make it legal to do so,” says Graham, taking a somewhat veiled swipe at Mt. Pleasant Town Hall, which helped kill one of his projects on the old Hassell Tract.
“Who wants to go through the brain damage when they can do so well making the same old stuff?” asks Graham.
Well, it appears that Tim Keane is into brain damage. Maybe the good kind.