Anticipating growth

Managing traffic will be among the ongoing challenges in and around downtown Charleston, especially if the peninsula's population swells from 35,000 today to as much as 60,000 in 15 years, as the city's planning director expects.

The Charleston peninsula has perhaps 35,000 residents now, but the city's top planner said there could be 60,000 in 15 years, and planning for that growth will be an important challenge.

"If we grow in the right way, when we get to 60,000 people on the peninsula, it will be a positive thing," Tim Keane, director of the city's Department of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability told an audience at Thursday's Small Business Lunch at Halls.

Keane said the tri-county area, which now has about 725,000 residents, could be home to a million in another decade and a half - a projection that sounds bold, but is supported by growth trends.

Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties have together been gaining about 14,000 residents each year, which would be another 210,000 residents over 15 years. That would put the tri-county population at 935,000, and an uptick in growth could easily push that to a million.

"We think it should be our goal that the center of the city grow," said Keane. "It's important that the city not just be a place for visitors."

He defines the city center as the Charleston peninsula, from the tip of The Battery to the North Charleston city line in the Neck Area. All together, it's about 8 square miles, within a city that stretches across 110 square miles from Johns Island to the Cainhoy peninsula.

How would Charleston accommodate another 25,000 people in the city center? In 1940, the Charleston peninsula - which was the entire city at the time - had about 70,000 residents, but that was when large downtown homes were occupied by large families.

The downtown resident population was falling steadily until very recently, and stood below 32,000 when the 2010 Census was conducted. The shrinking population has been masked by the large numbers of tourists and college students.

To accommodate more growth, Keane said, the city will focus on the north end of the peninsula, from Morrison Drive on up through the post-industrial Neck Area. Keane said a city planning effort focusing on the upper peninsula is getting under way.

"Our emphasis is on making it a good place to live, a more urban place to live," he said.

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Managing traffic, parking and public transit will be a key issue. City traffic includes huge numbers of tourists, and large numbers of hotel, restaurant, college and hospital workers who commute.

Making buses a good alternative for people who need to get around downtown is something the city is focused on, Keane said.

He said other major planning efforts in which the city is engaged include the Cainhoy Plantation development plan, an area in Berkeley County that is nearly twice the size of the Charleston peninsula. The city is also exploring ways to revitalize some of the "tired" commercial areas in West Ashley, including Citadel Mall and its surroundings.

"The dynamics of retail and destination shopping have changed dramatically since Citadel Mall was built," Keane said.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552