There is something about the vehement opposition to the Beach Company’s planned redevelopment of the Sergeant Jasper site that suggests the looming battle is about much more than just traffic and density. The intense fervor displayed by some residents against the PUD suggest that this proposal may be seen by some as a proverbial line in the sand against growth and development in downtown Charleston, a project to be stopped at all costs. If the Beach Company’s plans can be slowed or stopped with a visceral and vocal show of force, the thinking apparently goes, then perhaps a bulwark can be established against the continued growth that has slowly transformed the city over the past three to five years.
The problem is that no amount of righteous indignation against traffic or angry mobilization against density is going to make downtown a less desirable place to live or stem the economic forces that are driving our area’s continued growth. In order to have a constructive dialogue about traffic congestion or how residential growth should be directed, the narrative needs to evolve away from the closed-minded “not-in-my-backyard” philosophy which is so evident in the current debate and towards positive strategies encouraging sustainability and livability for the city. Otherwise, there will be many more reactive demonstrations in the future about projects that supposedly don’t belong in the city and not enough proactive discussions about what solutions do belong. The territorial mentality which fuels the opposition to projects such as the Sergeant Jasper project does not move this city forward. In fact, it actually sets us back.
The Charleston area is growing rapidly due to an economic renaissance and an increase in development over the past few years. The Charleston Trident Association of Realtors recently reported that residential home sales in the area increased from 7,907 in 2008 to 12,014 in 2014, almost a 40 percent jump. During this same time period, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force in our region increased by over 12,000. Because of the increase in new residents, the question of where to live is a central one. However, options are limited in downtown Charleston. Homes must either be built on the outskirts of town, contributing to sprawl and increased traffic along the arteries into downtown, or development must focus on the city center. From an urban planning perspective, increasing density within the center of a city makes sense on many levels.
There is a prevalent train of scholarly thought which suggests increased density within a city center creates a more sustainable city. A certain amount of density is required to support local food stores, restaurants, and businesses. Density brings together communities in areas where they can walk to school or work, and it also facilitates the efficient concentration of needed resources such as energy, sewage systems, and hospitals. Since walkable communities must reach a critical mass to function, they actually reduce the amount of traffic caused by long commutes to and from the city center. As stated before, businesses also thrive and increase the tax base in an area where they have a concentrated amount of citizens and customers to sustain them.
Viewed in this light, increased density isn’t a bad thing. The same arguments now being leveled at the Sergeant Jasper PUD were once directed toward I’On in Mt. Pleasant. The density was far too much they said. It makes no sense to put bars and businesses inside of a neighborhood. That would only increase traffic they said. Several years and many court battles later, and after several jam-packed planning hearings reminiscent of what we are now seeing in response to the Beach Company’s proposal, the naysayers were proven wrong. I’On is now one of the most desirable communities in Mt. Pleasant, and one of the main reasons why is that its increased density creates a feeling of community and connectivity which would have been impossible had the arguments against that level of density been heeded. This is the type of density the opponents of the Sergeant Jasper PUD are fighting tooth and nail.
The new Sergeant Jasper PUD may not be the next I’On, but it shares a similar philosophy in terms of fostering a heathy mixed-use development. The solution to easing traffic congestion is to offer better public transportation and give residents fewer reasons to hop in their cars to get where they need to go. Unfortunately, there is a segment of the community that is so consumed with fighting against the PUD, they aren’t taking the time to look for solutions to the challenges of continued growth.