Reducing suburban sprawl is a worthy goal. So is encouraging people to bike and walk to shop and do business.
But while “gathering places” are intended to achieve both positive benefits, it is becoming clear that they don’t belong everywhere.
Almost a decade ago, the city of Charleston awarded “gathering place” zoning to a 22-acre tract of land on Maybank Highway behind the James Island Shopping Center. In doing so, it gave the owner permission to develop a mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented project without limits on its density or minimum lot size.
But the designation is intended for tracts of 80 acres or more. So it is no surprise that James Islanders who live or drive by that area think plans are inappropriate for the spot.
Woodfield Investment’s plans for five of the acres include a four-story apartment building wrapped around six levels of parking garage space, as well as office and retail space.
The city’s Design Review Board tonight will consider the plan’s height, scale and mass. The DRB wisely sent the developer back to the drawing board when it previously reviewed plans for the Maybank Highway tract. It should continue to apply due scrutiny. But the developer is within his rights to make the property as densely populated as he wants.
It is that density that has neighbors up in arms. A vocal group insisted that the proposed 316 units would pose significant traffic problems in an already congested area near the intersection of Maybank Highway and Folly Road.
In response to their concerns, Woodfield Investment scaled back plans to 284 units and redesigned the Maybank Highway facade to make the four-story building appear less overwhelming from that perspective.
But the prospect of 500 cars coming and going and adding to the throngs trying to cross the Intracoastal Waterway onto or off James Island is troubling to those who already deal with a growing volume of traffic on Maybank.
Further, they point out that while gathering places are supposed to have access to public transportation, it is very limited there.
It seems clear that the city shouldn’t have granted gathering place zoning for the too-small property that is in a congested area without adequate bus service.
The Maybank property is not the only property with gathering place zoning. One is off Maybank Highway on Johns Island past River Road. Another is off Folly Road at Fort Johnson Road. A particularly controversial gathering place project is planned near the Angel Oak on Johns Island.
The city of Charleston should recognize that there is a need to reconsider the concept of the “gathering place” — whether they are workable, and if so, where.
If there are to be gathering places, they should at least meet the city’s own requirements of 80 acres, public transportation access and being pedestrian friendly.
It is also important that the city communicate better with citizens. The various planning stages for zoning, design, technical development and construction are too complicated and confusing. The city should find a way to do its business in a way that makes people feel invited to participate in the process from the onset.
The idea of a walkable community where people live, work and do business is intriguing.
But the reality could be much different if 284 apartments, many with multiple occupants and cars, are built and their residents still drive to their jobs, their favorite shops and their doctors on roads that are already congested.