Five years ago, the City of Charleston’s chief planner, Tim Keane, left to start a private design firm. At the time, that’s where the action was at. But now, planned growth has slowed everywhere, including Charleston — whether its niche-market stores and businesses with high-end condos upstairs, expansive downtown hotels, or massive suburban neighborhoods.
Keane recently returned to the city, now helming Charleston’s expanded Department of Planning, Preservation, and Sustainability, but he’s looking at a different landscape. Builders have been forced to adjust their expectations — with property selling cheaper, slower, and smaller. And residents are demanding different priorities these days — they’re more concerned about bike lanes than passing lanes.
After leaving the city in late 2004, Keane worked with private developers on a dozen ambitious projects, including Mixon in North Charleston as well as others in Beaufort and Mt. Pleasant. The economic downturn left Keane looking for another opportunity in the public sector, and he found his old job open again (his replacement, Josh Martin, left the city in 2008 to work with the environmentalists at the Coastal Conservation League).
But Keane is well aware that he’s returning to his old job with a new set of priorities. After he left, the city consolidated planning and zoning under one umbrella. Last year, the city added an office of sustainability. It’ll now be up to Keane to captain this diverse ship, and he’s got a new favorite rudder.
“Green. Sustainable. Whatever label you put on it, that is not something else that we do — it’s everything that we do,” he says. “We’ve been accustomed to cheap energy, cheap gasoline. Everybody has come to realize those days are over.”
That’s going to mean a dramatic change in the size and shape of development.
“I think we’re going to occupy the land differently,” Keane says. “We’re going to be more efficient in the spaces we live and occupy.”
Leading the reforms will be increased calls for alternative transportation.
“Before, citizens had demanded that we be able to drive everywhere as quickly as we can. Now, citizens are saying, ‘I demand to ride my bike to some places safely,'” Keane says. “That’s a sea change for government.”
This new focus is going to require reforming a system that in some ways was already antiquated in the previous era of fast-paced, sprawling development.
“All the processes of local government has tended to be about automobile transportation,” Keane says. “I don’t think we fully understand all the changes that are going to be required.”
The first step is to clearly lay out the city’s sustainable priorities in an update to its comprehensive plan, Keane says. That will have to be followed up with changes to city regulations that match the planning vision to avoid a disconnect and complicate progress.
“We need to make construction of the things we say we want as easy as possible,” Keane says. “If building what we say we want is an onerous process, then there will be a lot of conflict.”
It’s also going to require continued financial support from the city, specifically in regards to alternative transportation.
“There will be plenty of opportunities for development to pay for that, but there are going to be places where the city is going to have to invest,” Keane says. “I expect that to be a substantial part of our effort.”
The new sustainable push will also put increased stress on the peninsula and close suburbs.
“If the average citizen is expecting to use less energy in the future than he’s used in the past, then we’re probably going to have more people wanting to live closer to services and jobs,” Keane says.
Fallout from the burst of the economic bubble will also likely mean a recasting of major developments like Magnolia and Long Savannah.
“How do plans that have been approved over the past five to 10 years evolve in response to the changing market?” Keane asks. “How, if at all, do those plans need to be rethought in the context of how things are changing? That’s a big issue in the city.”
There’s also a flood of other projects under way that the city will have to continue to monitor, including improvements to busy routes on James Island, the broader redevelopment of the Cooper River waterfront downtown, including ambitious port redevelopment plans at the cruise terminal and Union Pier, and revitalization along Savannah Highway.
And, while the city can nudge development, it’s always in someone else’s hands.
“Whether a property gets redeveloped has to do with a lot of things the city has no control of, like the market or land deals,” Keane says. “We’ve got to stop bad things from happening and allow good things to happen by making that easy to do. But, ultimately, it’s the private sector that’s going to build those things.”
His private firm, Keane and Co., will continue, but won’t work within the City of Charleston. And Keane will be stepping away from the company full time. “I’m 100 percent here,” he says sitting in the city planning office. This is where the action is.