A student of cities: Charleston planner Tim Keane on growth, transportation and the future

Charleston's former planning director Tim Keane talks about city growth at a 2014 meeting.

Tim Keane's nearly six years as Charleston's director of planning, preservation and sustainability are over as he moves to Atlanta to do a similar job there beginning July 1. The Post and Courier talked with Keane about how Charleston differs now from what it previously was like, advice for the next person in his shoes and worries he has moving forward.

Q:How have you seen Charleston change during your time here?

A: When I came here in '99, the economy was kind of simple. ... I guess I need to start with that because the economy is so different now than it was then. ... There's a different dynamic in terms of the development market here fundamentally than there was at that time.

Q: How so?

A: So much of the construction and development that went on here at the time was either related to somewhat speculative residential real estate development ... there was some inmigration of people to the region ... people that were retiring, or people that were lucky enough to get a job ... the few jobs that were being created here. The economy of that time was really only supportive of kind of a modest amount of growth in terms of the inmigration of people and the investment that was going on here.

Today, utterly different people are moving here from all over the world, all over the country. You have real jobs, real wages, real opportunity in Charleston that runs a broad spectrum of industry, so it's just a different place. Charleston's never had that. And so now we have developers, of course, from all over the country looking at building here. Everybody wants to be in Charleston now. It's a good situation in the sense that we have real growth here, we have real demand. The two issues I would say with it, one is obviously managing that and such that this place is recognizable when all this development is done, and it doesn't in any way harm the quality of what Charleston really is, the uniqueness of it. And then the other thing is, I certainly do worry right now about the prices on things.

Things have escalated so quickly in terms of property and then you're seeing it with all these transactions that are occurring along King and Meeting and the peninsula. The peninsula especially, but even suburban areas ... the transactions that are happening now are at such high values. That's concerning.

Q: Why does that concern you?

A: People are getting ahead of themselves on the pricing is what you worry about. ... Getting too optimistic about value anymore is concerning because it leads to dramatically higher prices in terms of rents for people. I mean, whether you're a retail shop or you're somebody looking to rent an apartment, the upward pressure on all these rents is really getting concerning, and I would think given the transactions we've seen over the last six to 12 months, that will only become more concerning.

Q: What can be done about it?

A: The issue in Charleston is there's not a huge supply of land, I mean, obviously the peninsula is very constrained. You've got to increase the supply to get the pricing down. The peninsula and closer-in parts of the city, like West Ashley for instance and other places, need to be growing as the region grows.

Q: Are they right now?

A: Well, downtown definitely and really West Ashley is, too. It's going to get more and more difficult because people on the peninsula and in parts of West Ashley are more and more resistant to growth and change and development. People become resistant to it mostly because of traffic. The opposite is the case because if we're promoting more development on the peninsula or close-in areas of West Ashley, they tend to be locations where people don't have to drive to everything.

The peninsula population right now is about 35,000 people. Our goal is that ... when the region gets to a million, the peninsula's population would be 60,000 people.

Q: Is there room for that?

A: We do think that there's the ability to grow to that level. An issue is we have to find ways to build that permit more density and height and those kinds of things ... to add 25,000 more people and then also add more employment, more offices, more workplace. We have a lot of demand for that. Add 10,000 more jobs on the peninsula, that all adds up to a lot of development. It has been done well. It can be done well. It's just that obviously, the community has to be supportive of that and one of the main issues is that the community has to see that we're addressing transportation problems in Charleston and the region in a much more sophisticated way than we have been before.

Q: Transportation, such as infrastructure issues, or public transportation?

A: Really, both. Anybody that says we can just do public transportation without more roads is not being realistic. I mean, we need I-526 finished, we need I-26 widened from Charleston to Columbia. We need dramatic improvements on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard and St. Andrew's Boulevard. We need those road pieces but we also need a public transportation system that more people can happily choose to use. So that means a lot of things. It doesn't mean light rail necessarily.

Q: More buses?

A: Could just still be buses. In order for public transportation to work, it has to be in its own lane. It has to be in a dedicated space. That sounds easy, but it's not. It's difficult.

Q: What do you see for Charleston going into the future, then what advice do you have for whoever takes your position?

A: I think Charleston as a place to live and work will get better and better. It's a city that will not repeat the mistakes of other cities that have grown rapidly around this country in the past 50 years. It'll be a city and a region that will respond differently and, therefore, it will be a better and better place to live and work. I think Charleston will be a place I think in 10 or 15 years where people from around the country will come to look at how downtown and kind of older suburban areas should grow.

For the next person in my office: Don't take things personally would be one. I think I've always felt like it's important to tell people what you think. If you're the planning director for the city, you shouldn't try to gauge what you think people would want to hear, you just need to concentrate on what you think really ought to be done and then the community can decide if they agree with you or not. It's important obviously in this job to be a student of cities and to know what's going on in other first-tier cities. You've got to be very aware of how cities are growing. You have to be very aware of Charleston.”

Reach Allison Prang at 937-5705.