As greater Charleston's population rises fast, local planners are trying to channel more people into already-developed areas, to the dismay of some already living there.
The goal is to give some suburbs a make-over, more like a town's "main street" and less like busy roads lined with shopping centers and parking lots. "Gathering places" is how Charleston has described such areas - urban-style growth focused on people, not cars.
Developers love the concept because they get to build more units per acre. Conservationists are in favor, because steering growth to developed areas can reduce sprawl. But in Mount Pleasant and on Johns and James islands, there have been protests by residents who fear that large apartment complexes and tall buildings threaten the character of their communities.
"Where do they get the idea that this is what people want?" said Pat Welch, who lives across Maybank Highway from a 285-apartment complex under construction on James Island. "My driveway lines up with the driveway for that god-awful development they are building."
The conflict doesn't come from the idea of mixing homes and businesses together. That's increasingly common in new developments. The problems arise when zoning changes invite tall buildings and high-density housing in to long-established communities.
"I think there's a lot of agreement on the concept, when we do our plans," said Tim Keane, the city of Charleston's top planning official. "The problem is, people don't seem to want them where they live."
The first major development planned for a "gathering place" in Charleston initially had broad support but became a full-blown debacle.
At Maybank Highway and Bohicket Road on Johns Island, there are shopping centers or gas stations on every corner. Charleston thought that intersection would be a sensible place to encourage more homes and businesses, and hopefully turn it into more of a village-like atmosphere.
Developers proposed Angel Oak Village, a densely built collection of shops, offices and up to 600 multifamily homes, on 42 wooded acres. Only later would they realize their mistake in naming it after the Angel Oak, an ancient Live Oak tree that attracts school groups and tourists to a small city park adjacent to the site.
Starting in 2005, Charleston worked closely with the developer on the plans, with input from the Coastal Conservation League. The city was to get a conservation buffer around its park, nonprofit Sea Island Comprehensive Health Care, which sold the land to escape bankruptcy, would get additional funding, and environmentally friendly building practices would be used.
In 2008, after final plan revisions were approved, the opposition emerged and "Save the Angel Oak" was born.
"It's something that was pushed through really fast, and Johns Island residents were unaware of it," said Johns Island resident Samantha Siegel in 2008 when she created savetheangeloak.com. The website warned that the development, about 500 feet from the Angel Oak, could kill the famous tree.
Efforts to block the development lasted years, ranging from lawsuits to an all-nude protest in the city park. When the Army Corps of Engineers took the unusual step of reversing itself on a key federal wetlands ruling, the writing was on the wall.
Today the development plan is dead; the site is owned by the Lowcountry Open Land Trust, and city and county taxpayers helped fund that purchase to the tune of $2.9 million.
"I have never seen such a shocking turn of events," Keane said. "There was complete consent it was a good place for density and mixed use."
The intersection of Maybank Highway and Bohicket Road remains on a list of nine potential "gathering place" locations in Charleston's comprehensive development plan.
Mount Pleasant embraced similar development concepts in 2008, when the town approved plans to create an "urban corridor" along nearly 8 miles of the town's busiest roads between the Ravenel Bridge and Interstate 526. Buildings could be up to 55 feet high, rather than the previous 35, and greater density was encouraged.
There was special attention to Coleman Boulevard, the main road through the oldest part of the town. In some places there, buildings could be up to 75 feet tall.
Town Council on Aug. 13 reaffirmed support for the height allowances, rejecting a unanimous recommendation from the Planning Commission that they be lowered. In a concession to angry residents, the council lowered allowable building heights for 10 properties on Shem Creek from 55 feet to 45 feet.
Bill Eubanks, creative director of Urban Edge Studio at Seamon, Whiteside & Associates, worked with a 24-member resident committee and authored the town's Coleman Boulevard master plan.
"Coleman was kind of my baby," he said.
Eubanks said people are focused on building height now, but making the area pedestrian-friendly was also a big part of the plan.
"I guarantee you, five years from now or 10 years from now, a lot of those (opponents) will be going to shops and restaurants on Coleman Boulevard, and loving it," Eubanks said.
Eubanks is also working for the developer of the apartment complex on James Island, a project that has prompted sign-waving protests and crowded public meetings.
In Mount Pleasant, construction of a 60-foot-high, 325-apartment complex called The Boulevard opened in December on Coleman Boulevard and caused a backlash against the town's revitalization plan.
"I don't think anybody in this part of town really knew what was being proposed, and by the time they knew, it was too late," said lifelong Mount Pleasant resident Jimmy Bagwell. "It's happening on James Island, and in other places."
"We're going to wind up like Atlanta - that's what people fear," he said.
Eubanks said The Boulevard is a big improvement over what used to be on the property.
"It was a vacant Family Dollar store with a huge parking lot," Eubanks said.
City planners and supporters of high-density infill projects believe such plans reduce sprawl and create pleasant places to live. Put more people in developed areas, and that means fewer people in undeveloped areas, they reason.
"Sprawl causes traffic," Eubanks said. "What density does, in a lot of cases, is that it shortens the vehicle miles traveled for a lot of trips."
Sprawl also means extending government services - roads, sewer and waterlines, police and fire services - and Mount Pleasant officials have said most new homes don't deliver enough tax money to cover the costs. In already-developed areas, services are in place.
"It's important to help the public understand why these are good ideas, that they help prevent sprawling, automobile-intensive development," said Katie Zimmerman with Coastal Conservation League.
Opponents look at the same planning and zoning ideas and see something quite different. They see development that makes traffic worse and allows inappropriately large buildings in or near long-existing neighborhoods, benefitting developers at their expense.
"Of course, traffic starts to spill into the neighborhoods, and naturally people push back," Bagwell said. "I'd rather see (growth) spread out into the countryside."
There are increasing numbers of places where developers and residents have been embracing what's known as mixed-use development. That means instead of having a residential subdivision in one place and a shopping center down the road, a development blends residential and commercial uses, where apartments and shops might be next door or in the same building.
From Seaside Farms in Mount Pleasant, where apartment buildings sit adjacent to stores and restaurants, to the Nexton development near Summerville, where developers say they measured "the number of steps from school to home to office to café," urban-style mixed use development has a following.
However it's one thing to build a new development, and quite another to change the development rules along a community's main streets. If planners and local officials have been surprised by the push-back from some residents, it's because these plans were on the books for years before anyone seemed to complain.
"There have been goals in the town's master plan and comprehensive plans since the late 1980s for more density," said Mount Pleasant Planning Director Christiane Farrell.
With Charleston's gathering places and Mount Pleasant's Coleman Boulevard plan, public meetings were held and reported upon, but a backlash only surfaced years later, when development began. That may be because, while zoning and land-use planning is important, meetings about zoning regulations can be time consuming and boring.
"I do this for a living," Zimmerman said. "Normal people don't have time to look at zoning ordinances and comprehensive plans, they just know that a big apartment building is going up."
Even when people are engaged in the planning, the outcome may not be what they expected.
"I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that the situation on Maybank was a bait-and-switch, and they sold us a bill of goods," said Welch, the James Island homeowner. "The original (development) plans showed tree-lined avenues and nice setbacks; it looked like a village, with people walking by and playgrounds."
Zimmerman and Eubanks said some of the push-back comes because apartments tend to be the first things built. Shops come later, after the apartments are filled with potential customers.
"When community members can't see the whole thing, they get nervous," Zimmerman said. "When the first thing that goes up is an apartment building, that's not very helpful."
Keane said there are also folks who feel overwhelmed by the area's population growth, and would prefer not to see more development, of any kind.
"I think people just don't want more development, no matter where it is," he said.
Reach David Slade at 937-5552.