The new apartments on Maybank Highway on James Island are getting steady coverage by The Post and Courier, and so far most of the coverage relates to concerns about: 1) the "character" of the development being out of scale or foreign to James Island, 2) the loss of trees on the site, and 3) increased traffic. So I want to address each of these concerns.
First, a tiny bit of background so that this location can be understood in the context of the city's plans. There are two fundamentally important aspects of the city's comprehensive development plan: the establishment of an urban growth boundary and a plan for suburban and urban areas that puts walkable, mixed use and more dense housing together in the right locations. These two policies are part of one strategy to protect rural areas and give more people the option of living in places where they don't have to drive a car for everything.
Here is the thing about any plan: It has to involve specific places. I have heard many times that people support these policies - just not in any specific location. Unfortunately planning just doesn't work that way. Policies in practice involve specific locations. This is why in 2013 the City of Charleston downzoned property in the Seaside area of James Island to prohibit apartments because that area is not centrally located or part of a mixed use, walkable center. This is why the City of Charleston has maintained the urban growth boundary on James Island so that the Grimball Farm is kept very low density. And this is why we have planned for the area around the intersection of Folly Road and Maybank Highway to become more highly integrated mixed use and walkable.
Back to the areas of concern about these new apartments on Maybank Highway. First regarding the character of James Island. In 1970, before any annexation by the City of Charleston, there were already 27,000 residents of James Island. That represents most of the population that is on James Island today. The point is that by 1970 the place was no longer a rural one. Suburbanization of the island took off in the 1950s like many places in America. The nostalgic view of James Island as a rustic, farming community cannot be blocked apparently by the James Island and Cross Creek Shopping Centers which sit next to the apartment site, or by the six-story office building across the street on Wappoo Creek. Or by 2,500 other apartments already on James Island. Let's just say that James Island is solidly suburban at this point.
What we have done with the apartments on Maybank Highway is required that they be well designed and sensitive to the neighbors across the street. Therefore, the buildings fronting Maybank Highway will be two-story, and will step up in height back away from the road. The garage parking will be completely hidden from view. Remember, the alternative to garage parking hidden from view would be surface parking all over the property. These will be the nicest apartments anywhere.
Regarding the trees, the developer worked with the city to save the grandest trees on the property which are in the back. A conservation area was created where the best trees are located. The plan went to our zoning board for a public hearing. Many people, including many neighbors came out and gave their opinions. An open public process was held and a creative solution to save as many trees as possible was found. Ultimately the developer received a variance to remove a total of seven grand trees for the apartments. They are also planting dozens of new trees on the site. They are even planting 10 new live oaks trees across the street on the neighbor's property. So for those of us who are concerned about having good urban tree cover for generations, the net result of this plan is more tree canopy.
And finally regarding traffic, the only way to solve our traffic problems is to have more people living in locations where they can walk, bike or use transit for some trips they need. It's the only way. So the plan for a mixed-use walkable center at Folly and Maybank, and most definitely including these apartments, is a very important part of the traffic solution for Charleston.
By living here on Maybank Highway some of the residents will walk each day to the grocery store or the drug store or the dry cleaner or the theater or one of the 11 restaurants nearby. Occasionally they will walk to McLeod Plantation and to the waterfront at Wappoo Creek. Some will walk to work across the street or at one of the many offices nearby. Or they will make a short drive to MUSC or some other place downtown for work rather than commuting a long distance and causing even more congestion.
Our region and center city are in a period of significant growth. It is our goal to avoid the mistakes of many places that grew by developing more and more farmland and in disconnected, monotonous ways. The new apartments on Maybank Highway and the mixed use center they will be part of are the product of years of planning and the involvement of many citizens. They will be evidence that solutions have to be found in specific locations - not in words in a document. And these apartments will get better and better as more of the center comes together in the future. That's what plans are all about.
Tim Keane is director of Planning, Preservation, and Sustainability for the city of Charleston.