SUMMERVILLE — An Ashley River riverwalk is Bob Jackson’s dream — a boardwalk stroll from trendy shopping nooks or dining to the marsh and woods, then across a footbridge into history at Colonial Dorchester.
It would be a sort of suburban version of the famous Austin, Texas, tourist attraction. It would be the thing that finally gives the Oakbrook community its curio, its identity.
The booming suburb south of Summerville was conceived a half century ago as an upscale planned development. Its strip mall shopping center hub has become a badly aging, mixed bag of convenience retail that commuters, more and more, drive past.
Jackson, a town councilman, wants a “high end” Oakbrook, guided by a master overlay for the district — a single, defining set of redevelopment standards shared by the town and Dorchester County, because parts of Oakbrook are in each.
After more than a few years of “beating my head against the wall” trying to drum up enough interest to make it happen, Jackson might finally be getting people to listen.
But he has a long way to go.
The neglected asset
Jackson is talking about controversial ideas such as requiring developers to build structures that evoke the historic ambience of the plantation riverlands, dialing back billboard and street advertising, and even tax increment funding to pay for some public work. In tax increment funding, a district is set up and money borrowed to help redevelop it on the expectation that the increase in property values as the district revitalizes will pay back the loan, rather than adding an assessment.
But in both the town and county, the suggestion of any new tax or government imposition brings loud opposition.
Jackson is not daunted.
“Everything is there, it’s just there in little pieces,” he said. “There are developers already looking to develop (something new) in Oakbrook.”
The key to Jackson’s plan is maybe the most neglected asset in Oakbrook — the Ashley River that runs along it.
Except for a town boat landing and the nearby Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site, there has been for years no real public face of the river. It’s hidden back in the trees largely along private property.
But the town has acquired property between the landing and park. Farther upstream, Dorchester County bought two parcels to develop as parks. At least one developer has approached Jackson about capitalizing on the river proximity.
Meanwhile, the aging shopping center at the intersections of Dorchester, Trolley and Ladson roads suffers as nearby North Charleston retail competition grows, pulling more people away.
The hub was designed as the linchpin for a grand, upscale planned community envisioned by the former Westvaco timber company in the late 1960s. But upscale never happened.
Jackson sees a chance to get it right this time, promoting the riverlands as a cultural draw, like a heritage corridor.
“I’d like to capture the value of that river now, because if it gets developed (wrong), we’ve got what we’ve got,” he said. “We need to get a high-end area for (residents and tourists) to come to.”
‘Something to look at’
This isn’t the first windmill Jackson has gone tilting at. He was the elected leader pushing for an arts and civic center in downtown Summerville four years ago, a project side-railed partly because of funding problems in the recession. It’s a cause he still champions and sees as a bookend to the Oakbrook redevelopment: the town with an arts and cultural focus, the river with a recreational focus, and destinations on both ends to provide mutual draws.
He has pursued both intently enough that other leaders don’t always feel he keeps them in the loop. His biggest hurdle has been getting enough movers and shakers involved — not to mention the community.
But now, a new Rollings School of the Arts as well as a YMCA aquatics center might well be built in or near Oakbrook. The recent county park purchases and the emphasis on tourism revenue by Summerville Mayor Bill Collins have put the strip mall environs out front. Collins recently pushed the town’s annexation of Colonial Dorchester and hopes to work with state parks officials holding events such as a re-enactment of the Revolutionary battle that was fought in the area.
Jackson helped organize a “sustainable development” how-to presentation last week by Urban Land Institute guru Ed McMahon, which drew some 35 people including a number of business, planning and elected officials.
So far, though, few seem completely sold — historic riverwalk or not.
“I do believe we need to tread carefully,” balancing the need to redevelop with protecting private property rights, said County Councilman Jay Byars, who represents Oakbrook. “Let’s be realistic, we’re not trying to be (tony) Hilton Head Island.”
Summerville already is considering options such as tax increment districts, Collins said.
“We are interested in doing some revitalizing in Oakbrook as well as some other parts of town,” he said. “(Jackson’s plan) is something to look at. But so far there’s been no formal council discussion.”
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