No one wants to hear this, but apartments aren’t really the problem.
Just ask Dana Beach.
His Coastal Conservation League has been preaching the virtues of density growth for more than a quarter-century. It is, he says, an important tool in the conservation of greenspace and wetlands – and one of the best ways to ease traffic congestion.
But he concedes that message is a hard sell, the one concept his group has been the least successful in promoting.
“It’s so difficult to talk about it,” Beach says. “It’s a frustrating and misunderstood issue laden with stereotypes and preconceptions.”
That’s an understatement.
Recently, residents of Byrnes Downs descended on City Hall to protest a planned unit development that will plant nearly 200 apartments on Coburg Road, just behind one of West Ashley’s oldest neighborhoods.
Neighbors have had the same reaction on James Island, where a monstrosity called The Standard has rightfully drawn criticism, and Daniel Island, where an apartment complex for seniors is going up amid protests.
The backlash against multi-family housing is so fierce that Mount Pleasant considered a moratorium on apartments.
This debate is really only starting. There are 6,000 apartments on the drawing board in the city of Charleston alone … and no end in sight.
This is the price of popularity, but one thing’s for sure: this isn't a simple fix.
Charleston’s Planning Commission recently began work on what is called the Century V plan, which aims to manage development while mitigating flooding and traffic concerns.
As some people point out, one leads to the other two.
Beach can toss off statistics from any number of national studies that suggest apartments are good for traffic. A single-family home generates 9 or 10 car trips a day. Apartments, roughly half as many.
That would be especially true in complexes with age requirements, where many of the tenants would be retired and not commuting at rush hour.
Beach says local governments have dropped the ball on managing this growth. The Standard should not have been allowed to build as many units as it did until there were adequate sidewalks, crosswalks and bike lanes surrounding it. If it had, the complex’s proximity to a shopping center at Maybank and Folly would cut down on car trips.
The city is currently reviewing its controversial “gathering place” regulations, which is a good move. But Beach argues it shouldn’t be tossed out, as some would like. The Standard just didn't well, set a good standard.
This notion won’t be popular, either: Beach says Mount Pleasant’s much-loathed gathering place, The Boulevard, ain’t that bad.
“It is ugly, and does not add to the visual landscape,” he says. “But you can’t argue it increased traffic congestion.”
Of course, that may be in part because The Boulevard backs up to the Old Village, which Beach says is a model of street systems the entire Lowcountry should have adopted years ago.
Off the grid
There are two reasons people oppose apartments in their neighborhoods.
One, they fear the riffraff. Which isn’t really an issue here – have you seen the prices these places charge?
The other reason is traffic. But that aversion to neighborhood traffic has, in part, led us to this.
The Coastal Conservation League has argued for years that we need more of a grid system for streets to spread out the traffic. You know, like in the Old Village.
It’s true that street grids are hard to pull off in a community divided by water, but development over the past few decades has made things worse. Neighborhoods no longer connect. As Beach points out, we have a string of huge subdivisions from southern West Ashley to Awendaw with one road in and out – and every one of them dumps traffic onto Highway 17.
That’s how people wanted it. They don’t want cars in their neighborhoods. So they all end up on the same road. Congestion is unavoidable.
“If traffic congestion was the concern, Mount Pleasant would put a moratorium on single-family homes,” he says.
But that’s unlikely since apartments are the only alternative. Doesn’t make them any more popular, however. Beach knows this.
The simple answer there is no simple answer. We have to do several things in concert. The Coastal Conservation League has also argued for years that a better mass transit system is the only way to ease congestion and ensure density growth doesn’t add to the problems, and minimize traffic from apartments.
But that’s another message that has proven a hard sell. Southerners like their cars.
Good thing, because we are going to be sit in them a lot more in the coming years – apartments or no.