MOUNT PLEASANT - Plans to transform Coleman Boulevard into a sort of Main Street - an urban focal point for the state's fourth-largest municipality - reached a milestone this week as officials celebrated the opening of The Boulevard.
The towering four-story apartment and retail development was hailed as a centerpiece in a five-year effort to reshape this street into a more walkable, bikeable area, with on-street parking, outdoor dining and other urban details.
But the Coleman Boulevard Revitalization Project - and the rezoning that made it possible - are facing new scrutiny and resistance among residents who say the scale of the project threatens the character of the area.
The town approved the plan and its Coleman Boulevard Overlay District in 2008, but the recession limited the pace of change - at least until recent years. Not only was The Boulevard completed, but work also began on Earl's Court, a dense, new mix of housing and shops just off Coleman. That project also has stirred the town's political scene, resulting in a few packed meetings and a proposal Tuesday to put a moratorium on new permits for Coleman - at least for a while.
Town Councilman Paul Gawrych said he expects another packed house. While he doesn't favor a moratorium, he understands some residents are concerned about the changes.
"People thought they knew what was happening, and then they saw some things and were taken aback. When they looked into it, it was not what they wanted or liked," he said. "I'm disappointed by that. I understand it, but still."
'It will never be the same'
The Boulevard is the largest development under the plan - and one of the largest possible.
The $40 million project includes 325 apartments, which rent from $975 to $2,600 per month. It also features 15,000 square feet of office, retail and restaurant space on the ground floor.
Other changes under the new Coleman overlay have been smaller and met with more public approval, such as the new Heritage Trust Federal Credit Union at 847 Coleman or Juanita Greenberg's new restaurant at 410 Coleman or the Yobe and Triangle Char & Bar eateries on Ben Sawyer Boulevard.
But The Boulevard's sheer size makes it much more noticeable - and some, like Levie Ann Govreau, don't think that's good.
"It just doesn't belong," said the 71-year-old while looking up at The Boulevard during lunch at the nearby Southern Season restaurant on Friday afternoon.
Govreau said there are too many changes happening in the township, and it's shedding its unique culture.
"I just resent them coming in our town and making it yuppie," she said. "People who have moved in have changed this town to the point where it will never be the same way."
More to come
Those changes are expected to grow as the economy strengthens.
That's why Councilman Gary Santos has proposed a temporary moratorium on permits in the overlay district.
Former Town Councilman Tom Utsey said the new development, particularly Earl's Court, is bringing home the changes in a way that public hearings and discussion could not.
"There hasn't been a person elected to Mount Pleasant in 35 years who hasn't said they want to manage and control growth," he said, "but somewhere in the past 10 years, that has changed. Now it's 'Let's open it up to business. Let's open it up to developers. Let's make a downtown.' "
Both Utsey and former Town Councilman Jimmy Bagwell said they were concerned about Earl's Court, a dense housing development taking shape at Hibben and Whilden streets in the Old Village. Both said they don't like its density, apparent lack of parking and homes within inches of the sidewalk.
"We're concerned about that from a safety standpoint, and the character of the Old Village we feel is being compromised," Bagwell said.
But Earl's Court developer, Vince Graham, said the Old Village has some dense and beloved sections.
"Density is not so bad. We've got great examples of it in our best cities," he said. "The people who live in these places aren't diabolical and don't crush the property values."
But Bagwell said if Earl's Court-type density is possible elsewhere along Coleman, "there are quite a few undeveloped pieces of property that could be subject to that kind of density and we're very concerned about that."
As Beach Co. officials cut the ribbon Thursday on The Boulevard, they noted they did as the town had asked on the 5.95-acre site.
"We took a floor off. It could have been bigger, but it's just the way that it turned out," said Beach Co. President John Darby. "We knew what it would look like, and I think that when Coleman gets all the improvements to the road and the landscaping goes in and the on-street parking is added, and so forth, that it will help the aesthetics of the building even more."
Darby added he has not received resistance about the project, which he said will be one of others to be added to Coleman.
"It has exceeded our expectations," he said of The Boulevard development. "People said it came in rather quickly and in time it will blend in with the rest of Coleman Boulevard, and I'm sure there will be other buildings to complement it."
Some welcoming change
The arrival of The Boulevard has been lauded by area merchants who stand to benefit from the increased residents and foot traffic.
Randall Woods, manager of Mike's Bike shop a few storefronts down on Coleman, said he hopes that many of the 700-plus residents expected to occupy The Boulevard will start commuting to work with a bike instead of a car.
"We could see a shift with people coming in for bicycles for going to work," he said.
The same comments were echoed by Dan and Harriet Blackburn, owners of Six Mile Antique Mall.
"I'm pleased with it," Dan Blackburn said. "The people and tenants I've met are super-nice young people and that's been good for us. Our store is busy and it's nice they visit other places around here, too."
Directly across from The Boulevard, Shannon Campbell, owner of Mozzo Deli, watches to see what happens with the changes on Coleman Boulevard.
"I like growth, and I think it's good and important. As in business we must go forward over time, and this is a natural progression of going forward," he said. "I think some people are not considerate along the way and it needs to be done with care."
Campbell said one problem he sees so far is the lack of a crosswalk between The Boulevard and his business in the shopping center.
"I like this across the street, but I am sad that there isn't a crosswalk," he said. "Someone is going to get hit and that scares me."
Mount Pleasant resident Betsy Ross said she hopes Coleman's ongoing changes will encourage her family to spend more time here.
"We like to go to Towne Centre," she said. "If they can make this that type of feel where my kids will want to go and shop and walk up and down the street like we do in Towne Centre, we would come here sometimes."