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"I told my wife I would never move to North Charleston and here I am and I love it." Frank Atkinson said while mowing his lawn at his home on Monday, June 10, 2019 in Park Circle in North Charleston. He and his wife moved in 2009 after living on James Island for 22 years. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Park Circle, once a small community populated mostly by seniors near the former Charleston Naval Base and Shipyard, has transformed in recent years into a downtown destination with restaurants.

And, despite some traffic along residential roads, limited parking on the commercial strip and modern houses that stand out from the historic architecture, longtime residents say they're glad to see the neighborhood drawing young families and new restaurants.

This community's popularity doesn't surprise locals.

“This area has always been a diamond in the rough," said Gayle Frampton.

The Park Circle area, which includes the historic core of North Charleston, is now a blend of ranch-style homes and new apartment complexes. Many of the homes have changed hands, while additional apartment complexes have drawn new, younger residents who are also attracted by the area's affordability.

As development begins to expand south, North Charleston officials are performing a balancing act so that quality of life can be maintained without displacing who's there.

From death to life

Park Circle, founded in 1912 with a focus on agricultural and industrial activities surrounding a circular park in between Filbin and Noisette creeks and the Cooper River, boasted a diverse community of just over 150 households with schools, stores and plans for a mill by 1920.

During World War II, buildup at the nearby Navy base and shipyard led to several affordable housing projects surrounding Park Circle.

Frampton and her family moved to the neighborhood in 1940s when her father took a job on the shipyard.

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A motorist passes by a new two story house under construction on Braddock Ave. in the Park Circle area of North Charlston Friday, June 7, 2019. Residents in the area feel it's out of place. Brad Nettles/Staff

They used war bonds to purchase a house when South Rhett Avenue was still a dirt path, and present-day Quarterman Park was a swamp littered with fallen trees.

In the small community, everyone knew everyone. 

Years after North Charleston became a city, Park Circle still remained a mostly residential area. East Montague Avenue — North Charleston's old main street, didn't even have 20 cars on the street during lunch hours in the mid-'90s, said Mayor Keith Summey, who was elected in 1996. 

"It was basically dead," Summey said.

The city's partnership in 2001 with Noisette Co. developed a vision for revitalizing the now-closed Navy base. The project came up short on financing and the state ended up owning much of the historic property. While the on-base redevelopment efforts failed, nearby off-base revitalization was generated in Park Circle and surrounding areas.

The city developed Oak Terrace Preserve and this spawned the nearby private development of Link Apartments Mixson, a contemporary complex that includes a swimming pool, park and fitness center. The site of a former rubber and asbestos company was also used for new apartment units. 

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Factory at Garco apartments in Park Circle in North Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

With nearby East Montague now a commercial corridor — it bustles with restaurants, breweries, arts and crafts shops and spas — Park Circle is, for many, a perfect mix of commercial and residential, historic and contemporary. Recreational spaces, like Riverfront Park, appeal to young families who are also drawn to the area because it is cheaper to live in North Charleston than in places like Mount Pleasant or downtown Charleston.

Joe Mistratta, 25, is considering moving from a Mount Pleasant apartment to Mixson where he will save about $400 monthly in rent. He likes the area's community-feel and commercial node.

"It kind of mimics downtown, but it's much cheaper," Mistratta said.

Growing Pains

Longtime Park Circle residents like Frampton and Hugh Johnson, 70, — they serve as president and vice president of the North East Park Circle Neighborhood Council — are glad to see the community grow.

Renovated homes and the arrival of new families are symbols of life.

But like many in the tri-county region, residents feel that infrastructure isn't keeping pace with development. Traffic has increased on residential streets and there isn't enough parking to accommodate all the new businesses, Johnson said.

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It remains to be seen how deep the commercial boom on East Montague and surrounding apartment complexes will encroach upon the original, single-family homes, Johnson said.

“We are a neighborhood of single homes," he said. "We want to keep that.”

Community leaders and residents living on the outskirts have said blighted communities further south have been left out of Park Circle's success.

Along Rivers Avenue, neighborhoods suffer from the lack of basic resources, like grocery stores, drug stores and adequate schools.

Summey, who lives in Park Circle, said redevelopment efforts in the community have been underway for 20 years, and Park Circle was on the "higher end" when those efforts began.

Those efforts are starting to trickle south, he said, pointing to a new children's hospital on Rivers Avenue and development on Spruill Avenue. Many properties on the city's south end are underdeveloped and underutilized, Summey said. The challenge will be how to spur growth without pricing-out longtime residents.

"It's a balancing act," he said. "We don't want to create gentrification."

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Olde Village in Park Circle is traveled by people having lunch on Monday, June 10, 2019 in North Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Newcomers are keeping a watchful eye as well. Mike Simmons, 29, just moved to the neighborhood from Brooklyn, N.Y., where he noted the impacts of gentrification.

He hopes to get involved in local, grassroots efforts that will promote development with sustainability in mind, helping keep the neighborhood a diverse, thriving community.

"I hope it maintains its funky character," he said.

Follow Rickey Dennis on Twitter @RCDJunior.