For years, visitors to the most beautiful city on the East Coast have gotten a first impression of Charleston that is, well, less than stellar.

As Interstate 26 winds down the neck of the peninsula, the landscape around the highway is scattered with old abandoned industrial sites, dilapidated buildings and the Joseph Floyd Manor — which looks like it belongs in the Bronx.

Especially when it had that big hole in the side of it.

It could be the road into any rust belt town, honestly. At least they finally got rid of that old water tower. And losing the Trenton-esque bridges over the harbor didn’t hurt.

The only thing out there that hints at better things to come is a long procession of billboards. But frankly, those could be luring you into any southeastern tourist town.

When people finally reach King Street they of course begin to see what all the fuss is about. Hopefully by the time they hit The Battery, they have forgotten all about Mad Max-land.

But you know what they say about first impressions.

One of the unintended consequences of the city’s plan to rehabilitate the upper east side of the peninsula and neck is that it will change that first impression.

“It’s not really been part of the plan, but it’s a pretty decent side benefit,” says Tim Keane, the city’s planning director.

That’s not the most important reason the planning commission and city council need to seriously consider the proposal from Keane’s crew, but it’s a pretty good fringe benefit.

Because Charleston needs a better front door.

On Wednesday night, citizens gathered at the longshoremen’s hall to talk about the city’s plans.

They outlined the schematics for a zoning district along Morrison Drive that would allow for taller buildings filled with condos and apartments, office space and retail shops. They talked about developers earning points for creating public spaces, and building affordable houses, that would allow them to go up to 10 stories (Floyd Manor is 12 stories, by the way).

Some people groaned — sounds like all that new-age planning mumbo jumbo you always hear from urban planners. Mixed-use space, smart growth.

Well, Keane says this is “Brilliant growth,” and he has a point.

Already, some of this is visible from the highway. One Cool Blow is a decidedly modern building with condos, offices and space for storefronts on the ground floor. Then there is the apartment complex going up on Morrison, right at the bridge off-ramp.

This is upper Charleston’s future.

Fact is, folks want to live downtown. In the next 15 years, the city’s population is expected to hit 200,000, and Charleston officials suspect at least 25,000 of those 65,000 new residents will want to live downtown.

If we do nothing, that is a big problem. Already the supply of downtown housing is so sparse that rents are getting beyond the reach of mere mortals.

The only solution is high-rises of condos and apartments.

You know — modern, living city stuff.

Sure, this is sort of gentrification — which has become shorthand for running off poor, black folks to pave the way for yuppie living.

It’s a legitimate concern. But Keane says all those people living between Meeting and King need not worry about being displaced. Not going to happen.

And the city owns all that public housing on the upper peninsula, which Keane says will not be moved. That is good news for the neighborhood.

If these developers — who are going to build something, mind you, zoning district or not — are given incentive to put up some affordable housing, shops and provide office space for, say, tech companies, suddenly longtime upper peninsula residents are living in a better neighborhood.

Their property values go up, there is more activity on the street, more public transportation options. And Charleston will get some truly diverse neighborhoods, which is something that great cities have.

The city does not own a lot of the dusty empty lots, rusting sheds and old plant sites on the upper peninsula and neck. That means change is coming, like it or not.

The only option we don’t have is to do nothing.

So we can let it happen naturally, take what we get, or we can direct the change in subtle, but important ways.

We cannot re-create the historic district on Morrison Drive, and shouldn’t try. The peninsula can become a living timeline of the city, one end as healthy as the other.

That’s a pretty good plan.

It doesn’t hurt that we get a better front door out of the deal.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.