The "gathering place" near the Angel Oak on Johns Island proved to be a planning debacle that so far has been countered by the concerted efforts of a grassroots citizens campaign and conservation organizations. They have managed to push back at least half of the proposed development to preserve some breathing space for the ancient, iconic tree.

If city of Charleston planners learned anything from the Angel Oak experience, it should be applied to plans for the "gathering place" on James Island at Maybank Highway near Fleming Road.

The first big step toward creating a "gathering place" on the 22-acre Maybank site will be a five-day project of tree removal beginning the day after Christmas.

That will be protested by a "gathering" of local residents who will hold a vigil there on Thursday morning.

Critics justifiably argue that the development is out of character with its neighbors and, indeed, James Island.

There is no doubt that the James Island "gathering place" will substantially increase the traffic on already congested Maybank. The addition of a four-story apartment complex and a commercial development will exacerbate traffic problems that have steadily grown worse in recent years. The first five-acre phase will accommodate 280 apartments.

City officials point out that the project's buffer zone for trees and shrubbery has been increased to 13 feet, in response to public criticism.

Planners would have done better to look at the example of Bishop Gadsden on Camp Road. The much broader buffer for the retirement center helps to retain the general low-key character of that part of James Island.

One long-time observer of city planning initiatives notes that a special area management plan for suburban Charleston once recommended a 10-foot buffer of landscaping for each story that a development rises.

Such a requirement would help ensure that a large-scale development doesn't pop up alongside the road under some trendy zoning rubric that veils its actual impact.

How urban is this project? The first phase will require the construction of a six-level parking garage - a structure previously not seen on James Island.

If the "gathering place" nomenclature is supposed to evoke the warm and fuzzy feelings of a village green, the reality is turning out to be something altogether different.

That was certainly the case with the Johns Island "gathering place," and the unpleasant prospect of that development finally resulted in a campaign to buy the property in question. So far, Angel Oak advocates have managed to acquire 17 acres of property, and are negotiating in the hope of buying a second tract of similar size.

Ultimately, the city of Charleston joined in that effort with contributions of its own.

And it's worth noting that the city decided last year to rely less on the "gathering place" concept in its planning process.

Incidentally, to qualify as a gathering place a site is supposed to be at least 80 acres under the city's rules. Clearly, the 22-acre Maybank tract falls far short of that requirement.

Absent the defining centerpiece of an Angel Oak, James Islanders will have to take it on themselves to insist that City Council make the necessary changes for the Maybank "gathering place."

Considering the pace of clearance that is scheduled for the site, it can't happen too soon.