For Gwendolyn Robinson, a recent meeting between Mt. Pleasant officials and community residents was like an encounter with a door-to-door salesman who’s convinced that you don’t understand his pitch.
She just wishes the Town was selling something as harmless as a new set of brushes.
Robinson lives in the Hamlin community, a largely black neighborhood nestled between Rifle Range Road and Highway 17 North. Her neighborhood, as well as the Six-Mile and Seven-Mile communities, is under increasing pressure from Mt. Pleasant officials who want a new road to run right through the heart of all three historically-black neighborhoods.
The road, the third phase of a larger Hungryneck Boulevard construction project, is designed to ease gridlock along Hwy. 17N.
The road to hell, or Porcher’s Bluff anyway, is always paved with good intentions, and ever since Hungryneck’s introduction to the public, the road has been mired in controversy. This project, like a lot of Mt. Pleasant road construction, seems to run roughshod over black citizen’s homes.
“We gave them Highway 17, which cut our properties in half the first time,” Myra Richardson, a Hwy. 17N homeowner, told The Post and Courier back in 2001.
“The second time, they took all of the front yard, and the third time they’re coming back with Hwy. 17N again,” Richardson said. “We gave them Venning Road, we gave them Rifle Range Road, so they have three major roads through this community already. And now with Hungryneck Boulevard cutting across the center, coming across the community, it’s going to totally destroy the community.”
In 2002, Richardson and the residents of nearby Four-Mile, a black community lying just east of Hwy. 17N near I-526, sought to get a temporary injunction under environmental justice law to delay construction of Hungryneck.
A judge denied the request, and, a year later, construction began, with the town acquiring 22 properties for the road and serving 13 condemnation requests, according to another P&C article.
One year, $9 million, and 1.7 miles later, phase one of the project was completed, with Hungryneck Boulevard beginning at the juncture of I-526 and Hwy. 17N, snaking through the Four-Mile community and on behind Mt. Pleasant Towne Centre to the IOP Connector.
George Freeman lives two miles down Hwy. 17N in Six-Mile, and he remembers what happened.
“Four-Mile was destroyed,” he says. “Between Towne Centre and Venning Road, those properties have been sold. Everything between Hungryneck and 17 will be gone soon.”
Freeman, as well as community leaders in Seven-Mile and Hamlin, doesn’t want to see what happened to Four-Mile happen to his neighborhood.
“No doubt there is a need for traffic congestion relief,” he adds, “what we don’t agree on is how to do it.”
Over the past 15 years, Mt. Pleasant officials and developers have responded to traffic congestion with a logic that most growing suburbs apply: build more roads. While more roads may solve problems temporarily, more roads also means more development, which means more traffic — which invariably leads to more roads, completing a sprawling cycle.
Currently, 60,000 people call Mt. Pleasant home. The once small town is now the state’s fourth largest municipality, up from sixth in 2000. By 2020, the population could mushroom to 100,000 people, with more than half of them living north of the IOP Connector.
Such projections make the completion of the Hungryneck project look urgent and essential. When all three phases are finished, Town officials expect 10,000 cars to be zipping along Hungryneck Boulevard daily.
Mt. Pleasant Planning Director Joel Ford wishes sprawl was under better control east of the Cooper, but after 27 years with the Town, he tries to put it in perspective: “We were growing from 6 to 10 percent in the late ’90s, and we couldn’t keep up with that in terms of roads, schools, and parks.”
The Town now has a steady 3-percent cap on growth, and requires potential developers to abide by a strict permit allocation program.
Nevertheless, Hwy. 17N rush hour is still the pits, and there needs to be traffic relief available somewhere. Ford knows this, too. He says the Town tried to ease congestion earlier but failed because of outcry from community members.
“Originally, we were going to do Hungryneck more as a service road, and then widen Rifle Range,” Ford says, “but George Freeman managed to stick a fork in it, and Six-Mile, they didn’t want it.”
Seven-Mile didn’t want it either, and its residents don’t want Hungryneck now.
“People don’t have any respect, speeding through your neighborhood,” says Seven-Miler Jeanette Lee, adding that the project is not going to solve the problem anyway, “because in the next two, three years, if they don’t stop that building, they’re going to be dealing with the same problem.”
Nevertheless, Ford notes that if Hungryneck isn’t constructed, Rifle Range is going to see between 15,000-20,000 vehicles added to its daily average of 6,000.
Certainly nobody wants that. So what exactly do residents of Six-Mile, Seven-Mile, and Hamlin want?
“I’ll tell you, one of the main things we want is that area between Six-Mile and Hamlin to be preserved in its natural state — a mixture of marsh and highland,” says Freeman.
Thomasena Stokes-Marshall, Mt. Pleasant Town Council’s only black member, disagrees with Freeman, saying most residents are OK with Hungryneck Boulevard.
“The many I’ve spoken to, it comes down to maybe two or three people that don’t want the road at all,” says Stokes-Marshall. “There are a significant portion of people that realize there needs to be another road.”
Stokes-Marshall also insists that the road can actually benefit the community. “They want lights, parks, and bike paths. These are issues that have never been on the table before,” she says, “And the majority of the people I’m talking to are resigned to look at it from that point of view.”
Nonetheless, the trade-off still seems like a lopsided transaction: 10,000 extra vehicles and more commercial development in exchange for street lights, parks, and bike paths.
Given that Town officials admit they haven’t allocated any money for such community improvements, it suggests that while the road will get built with all deliberate speed, the amenities promised to follow it may be slow in coming.
Other than funding, one of the biggest issues surrounding the continuation of Hungryneck Boulevard is the one least often discussed. Gwendolyn Robinson of Hamlin is careful how she puts it.
“We live in an era of political correctness, and I don’t want to hurt the cause by calling it racist,” says Hamlin. “But it’s not that I don’t recognize certain things.”
Planning Director Ford disagrees, saying Mt. Pleasant road development decisions, and Hungryneck in particular, aren’t race-based. He points out routes through Snee Farm, a predominantly white subdivision, that connect to the three major Mt. Pleasant corridors of Whipple Road to the west, Long Point Road to the north, and Hwy. 17N to the east.
Ford also cites a proposed road connecting Hwy. 17N to Porcher’s Bluff through the predominantly white Charleston National subdivision.
Nonetheless, the small, meandering roads throughout Snee Farm are significantly different from the proposed thoroughfare through Six-Mile, Seven-Mile, and Hamlin that would be serving 10,000 cars daily.
George Freeman and Jeanette Lee both believe that if a busy road is not allowed to go through white communities, then it shouldn’t go through black ones either.
Councilmember Stokes-Marshall recognizes that sentiment, but makes the point that, for many people, perception is reality.
The Town has made efforts to mitigate negative feelings about Hungryneck, including a proposal to rename it Sweetgrass Boulevard in honor of the basket-weaving tradition of many of the community’s residents.
George Freeman feels that proposal is simply cosmetic and doesn’t go far enough.
“People always talk about the sweetgrass baskets, but that’s only half of the equation,” he says. “These communities are some of the first land owned by African-Americans in the United States.”
Both Freeman and Lee cite family histories in the area, beginning when ancestors bought land from nearby Boone Hall Plantation that they used to labor on. “The historic value of these communities is greater than anything in Mt. Pleasant,” Freeman says. “We feel that they should be protected from a historical standpoint.”
Freeman is optimistic that residents and the Town can find common ground.
“We do believe that we’re going to come up with something,” he says. “We want to try and help road relief.”
But he’s been involved with Mt. Pleasant traffic issues for ten years, and he knows how the Town works. If officials feel they know what the best decision for the Town is, no matter whose neighborhood is affected, they’re going to stop at nothing to make sure that whatever plan goes forward is the one they feel is right.
Traffic congestion is a problem that affects everyone caught driving in Mt. Pleasant around 8:00 in the morning or 5:00 in the afternoon. It doesn’t matter what color your car is, or the color of the person driving it. Rush-hour snarl is an equal-opportunity pain in the neck.
So when Mt. Pleasant planners talk about a new road to relieve congestion, it would seem to make sense that the burden of that road — the construction, the noise, slight danger, and new development that it brings — should be borne equally by all those Mt. Pleasant residents who are expected to benefit from it.
In the end, it may be an uphill battle for the Six-Mile, Seven-Mile, and Hamlin communities, but Gwendolyn Robinson is staying put. “I never take the posture that what looks like insurmountable odds means I’m going to back off and go back into a corner,” she says.
So while Mt. Pleasant may be the dogged salesman, Robinson is trying to shut the door on its foot, knowing that she, or her neighbors, will never buy anything they don’t want.