Having grown up right across the street from the Maybank Highway “gathering place” currently under construction, I’d like to comment on 53+ years of progress that I’ve observed in the area since the autumn of 1960, when our family retreated from the city and moved to “the country,” which, incredibly, is how we referred to the area.
Maybank Highway at the time was a two-lane road draped by live oaks and was sufficiently quiet so that boys younger than 10 (but still of a certain age) could zip around on bikes and not worry about getting into trouble. There was little to nothing going on at the intersection of Maybank and Folly Road — a gas station where a bank is now, a nearby hamburger joint (Jack’s) and a small rundown cinderblock fuel house on the northeast corner of Folly and Maybank.
What would become the James Island Shopping Center was nothing more than a large open field with a single live oak performing sentry duty in the middle of it. The acreage on the northwest intersection of Folly and Maybank — where the Crab House and “high rise” office buildings are — still comprised part of the McLeod estate (I believe) and was undeveloped. The approximate area of the Cross Creek Shopping Center was where you’d find Vic Garrison and his driving range. Vic was a charming guy, a tough WWII Marine veteran but a softie at heart.
And yet the seeds progress had already been sown, as reasonably expected. WWII-era suburbs had popped up with the return of soldiers and the subsequent baby boom. The small, low-lying, two-lane swing bridge over Wappoo Cut was replaced by the “new” James Island Bridge, still in operation, and Folly Road had been widened.
Before long the James Island Shopping Center started taking form and later offered shoppers something else besides the simple Red&White grocery over at Riverland Terrace. Despite growth, things remained fairly stable on Maybank ambiance-wise, which saw more businesses pop up, a church, and increased building activity on Howle Avenue and Fleming Road.
There was a big change in the early ’70s when the decision was made to widen Maybank Highway to four lanes. I don’t recall a heck of a lot of protest at the time because it was clear that something needed to be done. Traffic was getting pretty bad. The result is what we have now — an ugly gash that extends from Folly to the Municipal Golf Course. Every single grand live oak was cut down to make way and, whereas necessary, one wonders if there couldn’t have been a more pleasing way to go about it.
In fact, oak trees and progress didn’t mix together well anywhere in the greater Charleston area back in those days. If one looks at Highway 17 north and south, Maybank Highway and Folly Road, the only real vestige of the once grand allees is the pathetic little strip on Folly Road near the base of the future I-526 overpass that’s poised to fly over James Island and the Stono River before landing on Johns Island.
Meanwhile, James Island, although still incredibly beautiful in parts, has been witness to some of the most haphazard, mismanaged and disorganized land-use planning imaginable. Not that I’m any expert — far from it — but I’ve been around long enough to see where we’ve come over 50 years and where we might be headed 50 years hence.
Greater Charleston will continue to grow, or at least we better hope it does for its economic welfare. In the clash of ideas about how to manage growth, you have on one extreme a philosophy that is tantamount to doing nothing, and on the other extreme a philosophy of overindulgence — and neither is healthy.
The “gathering place” on Maybank Highway was sold as just that, a descriptive phrase suggesting expansive breathing room and environmental friendliness, where residents can walk and bike in a self-contained model of population efficiency and accommodation, all under the pretense that James Island’s rural identity is no longer real.
Here’s the conundrum: What is real are the 5.5 rural acres — among the last on Maybank Highway — that will be transformed into something completely unreal, a 280-unit apartment complex and a six-story parking garage derived from the de facto assessment that this is the new James Island.
Is it really? Well, I guess it must be, now that it’s being built. And of course I have my biases — who wouldn’t? It will be very interesting in a few years to see if the reality of this remarkable project lives up to the promises that gave birth to it.
And if it does, I’ll be the first to serve myself a heaping helping of crow.
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@ comcast.net.