Cities’ shared vision Charleston, Mount Pleasant spruce up Highway 17

One feature of the Crosstown Parkway’s new landscape is a planted median to discourage pedestrians from crossing the busy highway between blocks. Instead, the main intersections such as this one at Ashley Avenue feature prominent crosswalks.

Eight years after the Ravenel Bridge opened to great fanfare, the stretches of U.S. Highway 17 approaching it from both sides have received their own million-dollar makeovers.

This new landscaping varies with the different natures of downtown Charleston’s Septima Clark Crosstown Parkway and Mount Pleasant’s Johnnie Dodds Boulevard.

But there are some similarities.

Both cost more than $1 million, and both were done as add-ons to other projects: installing new drainage lines in downtown Charleston and widening Johnnie Dodds to six lanes.

Both involve significant stretches of new trees as well as shrubs, grasses and other groundcover near islands at intersections. And the trees and plants were selected with an eye toward creating a look that would change with the seasons. Both involve new crosswalks, traffic lights and other upgrades.

The biggest visual punch seems to have landed in Charleston, where a raised median planted with Everclear Elms, a tree specially bred to grow narrow (so its branches won’t grow out and contact passing traffic).

This appealing feature replaced an ugly metal guardrail but wasn’t done for aesthetic considerations as much as for safety: It’s designed to discourage people from crossing the Crosstown midblock.

Robert Maerlender, a landscape architect with DesignWorks, says the design stemmed from conversations with city officials and the Charleston Parks Conservancy.

“Someone had described the Crosstown as a scar in downtown Charleston, and part of our intention all along was to make this feel like an intentional design move and heal some of that damage done early on.”

The plant palette and materials, such as azaleas, camellias and granite curbing, were meant to echo what’s found elsewhere downtown.

The improved look only highlights the eyesore of the pedestrian bridge that arches over the highway near Mitchell Elementary School. It now screams for attention all its own.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign of the Crosstown’s new landscape isn’t the highway’s right-of-way, but the new businesses and renovations that have taken place next door to it.

“There’s an opportunity with any kind of improvement like this to become an economic catalyst for the area,” Maerlender says. “I think it sort of starts to mend old wounds that were associated with it, and it becomes a source of civic pride for people who live adjacent to it.”

The project also includes a nod to the late Septima Clark herself, the civil rights leader whose namesake highway actually has been a sore spot for many in the city’s minority community. In so-called “refuge areas,” the city has installed six granite markers inscribed with her words.

There’s not a tribute as overt to Dodds, the late Mount Pleasant mayor, on his namesake road, but there are many more trees.

Landscape architect Lee Gastley of Seamon Whiteside + Associates Inc. says that landscape project also was a collaboration between the town and Charleston County.

The town pushed for a design that offered visual interest with different colors, textures and seasonal changes.

The most noticeable aspect to the design is the series of allees created along the length of the project between the bridge and Bowman Road.

“When you have a little over three miles worth of roadway, you don’t want to end up with tremendous mono-cultures of plant material,” Gastley says.

The design also was driven with motorists in mind, which explains why tree types alternate every few hundred yards.

“We wanted these groupings of plant materials where they were significant enough where you could appreciate them at 35-45 mph,” he adds. “You don’t just blow by them.”

While Johnnie Dodds might seem like many other suburban highways at the moment —and its occasional stretches of shiny metal crash barriers and lack of pedestrian crossing at Dragoon Drive don’t help that — the town hopes this highway will change over time.

The new landscaping is, in part, an attempt to plant a seed.

“It was important that it look as much as it could like a boulevard and not like an interstate cutting through town,” Gastley says. “Johnnie Dodds will redevelop, and you will have different types of businesses built closer to frontage. Over time, it will start to adapt to a more urban look than it has right now.”

Like many new landscape projects, the work might seem subtle now, particularly since spring hasn’t fully arrived and many trees still are bare.

Also, both public projects were mindful that, for taxpayers’ sake, a balance needed to be struck between the immediate impact and cost savings that come with smaller trees and shrubs.

In fact, the designers say it will take seven to 10 years before the tree canopies reach something close to their visual maturity.

So, ultimately judge these highway beautification works by watching whether they improve with age — and whether their immediate neighbors do, too.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.