To get involved
If you are a resident or work in the Upper Peninsula area and would like to help with the initiative, email Katie at MCKAINK@charleston-sc.gov. or call 843-529-3421.
Rooftops sprout flowers, reclaimed wood dresses up businesses, and buildings are renovated and reused, not torn down.
Charleston Upper Peninsula Initiative
Vacant acres: 260
Housing units: 1,314
Affordable housing: 73 percent
Racial makeup: 89% black; 8% white
Source: Sustainability Institute
Those are all parts of a blossoming eco-friendly district on Charleston's upper peninsula.
City and other officials have carved out 865 acres east of Interstate 26 from Lee to Milford streets for the new Upper Peninsula Initiative.
The area, which includes the fledgling NoMo business district, aims to steer growth in environmentally friendly ways, maintain and boost affordable housing and make it an area where people can live, work and play.
Charleston is one of only three cities in the South developing such an area. Others are Charlotte and Atlanta, said Bryan Cordell, executive director of the Sustainability Institute, the backbone organization for the project.
"With the population increasing, this is certainly an area poised for more growth, both short-term and long-term," Cordell said. "We are already seeing a lot of growth happening. We want it to happen in a thoughtful way. The goal is to shape a community with a vibrant plan that takes into consideration sustainability and environmental impact."
Cordell emphasized that nothing is being mandated in the new eco-zone. Planners want to encourage developers and businesses to think green when they submit building plans.
"We are not trying to prescribe how it will look," he said. "This whole area has its own character and vibe, and we expect its identity to evolve on its own. We just want to encourage developers to be thoughtful in how they construct their buildings. We don't want this to be thought of as a single unit here or there, but how it connects to the next lot and the next building. We are trying to showcase green space and include hidden green space."
Adding growing plants to roofs, or green roofs as they are called, and creating green space can help conserve energy, reduce fuel costs and benefit the environment by reducing carbon emissions, Cordell said.
"We are trying to challenge the urban heat-island effect," he said. "It's a direct result of impervious surfaces, such as paved parking lots."
Research has shown that temperatures in cities are usually warmer than that in outlying areas because of buildings and pavement, Cordell said.
In addition to green roofs, proper building designs and heights can maintain views of the Cooper River, he added.
"What's really special about this is it offers a great platform to have a discussion with developers for what is the right density and height," Cordell said.
The targeted area contains 17 percent of the peninsula's land mass, 9 percent of the peninsula's population and 8 percent of its housing units. That means there's plenty of undeveloped lots - about 260 acres or 30 percent of the study area.
It's mostly made up of commercial and industrial operations with some wetlands near Town Creek and Magnolia Cemetery.
Not many people live there now, but more residential use is slated for the area, and restaurants and technology firms have discovered it as an alternative to more costly real estate farther south on the peninsula.
"This area is already undergoing development so we thought it was a good time to come in," said Katie McKain, an urban planner with the city of Charleston.
A new apartment complex called NoMo is set for the juncture of Morrison Drive and the off-ramp of the Ravenel Bridge from Mount Pleasant. A high-rise hotel is planned for the corner of Meeting and Huger streets. The city and county own different tracts at Morrison and Conroy streets that could be developed.
"We also see a lot of tech/office expansions in the digital corridor on Morrison Drive," said Tim Keane, Charleston's director of planning, preservation and sustainability.
While organizers are borrowing the framework for what's known as an eco-district from cities such as Portland, Ore., they don't want to brand it as such.
"Red flags go up when people think it's all about the environment and being green," Cordell said. "It's also about businesses. Economic development and affordability are just as important as any sustainability."
Residents in the large swath of upper Charleston are predominantly black, and nearly three-quarters of the 1,314 housing units are affordable. Planners intend to keep it cost-friendly.
"We want to make sure the residents who live there remain there," McKain said.
"We want to make sure there are affordable options so people can get to where they work," Cordell said.
Because of the development already occurring in the district, the organizers want to make sure places are set aside to accommodate the surge of people expected in the area over the next decade or so. The peninsula's population is expected to nearly double over the next 15 to 20 years, Keane said. As of the last census, it stood at 34,636.
The growth won't happen in existing neighborhoods, he said. It will come in areas that aren't heavily populated. The sparsely populated upper peninsula is one of those areas, and the initiative will help it grow correctly, Keane added.
"It will be a model for how Charleston and other cities should develop in the future," he said. "It will include equitable development for everyone, energy conservation, resiliency, infrastructure and architecture. We are really highly, highly concerned in how this area of the city grows. We want it to be a very thoughtful and inclusive process. It will improve the quality of life with new jobs, services, public transportation and new parking options."
Making the area more livable is a key aim, Cordell said.
"The point is to create a community that is active and thrives," he said. "As the community flourishes and people come in, not only are they working there, but they can live, work and play in the same place. That's good for cities in general because it prohibits people from moving around as much as possible."
The project is just picking up steam after several months of behind-the-scenes organization, but already some businesses are latching onto the idea.
The owners of Half Mile North where Blue Acorn e-commerce company, Edmund's Oast restaurant and bar and SIB financial consulting firm are located, have two green roofs already in place. Their property is between Meeting Street and Morrison Drive, one-half mile north of the Ravenel Bridge.
"We are using it for the looks and for storm water runoff," said Michael Wooddy, one of the co-owners.
The slanted rooftop sheds, used for outdoor gatherings, include special features for cells of drought-tolerant grasses and flowers to soak up rainwater in four inches of soil while extra water from heavier downpours runs underneath the plantings and off the rooftops to an area below with palmetto trees.
Another planted rooftop can be found at a 3,500-square-foot building on upper Meeting Street where the nonprofit Lowcountry Local First houses its Local Works office.
The building's roof is carpeted in the same plantings found at Half Mile North, providing a pleasing view for what was before just a plain old rooftop near a railroad track, tank farms and industries on the upper peninsula.
"It's designed to be as thick as possible for the plants but as thin as possible for the weight," said Michael Whitfield, owner of Green Roof Outfitters, which installed the garden-like features.
Green roofs, he said, can cut energy bills up to 50 percent, make roofs last two to four times longer and soak up 65 percent of average rainwater, he said.
"They also have a psychological benefit of increasing workers' productivity," Whitfield said.
The national average for the cost of product, shipping and installation of a green roof is between $15 and $20 per square foot, Whitfield said. For the two 700-square-foot roofs he installed at Half Mile North, he charged about $12 per square foot. If someone wants just the product alone, the cost is about $9 per square foot through Green Roof Outfitters.
Another example of the district's eco-friendliness is the recent installation of an electric vehicle charging station by Charleston-based Normandy Solar, a first for the firm, in Half Mile North. The 7.2-kilowatt hookup can handle two cars and fully charge a vehicle in three to four hours, saving gas and avoiding greenhouse emissions.
Lindsay Nevin, owner of Flyway development and restoration company that owns three buildings at 1630 Meeting St., including the Local Works facility, supports the green-district effort.
"We just want to incorporate as many of the green technologies as possible," he said. "When dealing with old structures, you are limited with what you can do, and this is a good option for us. It helps control heat gain and loss and helps with storm water runoff."
A smaller 3,000-square-foot structure behind the Local Works shop that houses an interior decorator shop will have a green roof as well sometime during July, Nevin said.
In addition, the large 12,000-square-foot building called 1600 Meeting St. that houses 17 different tenants is being considered for plantings on its rooftop as well, he added.
Storm water management from green rooftops is a critical selling point, according to planners.
"It doesn't go down the drains and run off," McKain said. "We want to capture it and redirect it with plantings and bioswales."
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.