Public spaces priority

Architect Jim Thomas designed this pavilion, which has both a windmill and solar panels to generate electricity to light a nearby sign. It also offers a nice view of the lake in front of the Pine Hill Business Campus.

SUMMERVILLE — A few miles outside this town’s center, a new development is emerging with quality open space, even for those who don’t live there.

Summers Corners will be one of Dorchester County’s largest subdivisions, the first piece in WestRock’s mega East Edisto development. It’s clear the company has a lot at stake and would value getting started on the right foot.

So far, so good.

Its creation of Buffalo Lake and The Commons provide two significant public spaces, while just down the road, the entrance to Pine Hill Business Campus also features a trail meandering through a 38-acre park, complete with a lake and a fanciful windmill.

Anyone reading this newspaper realizes full well how wary so many Lowcountry residents have grown of growth and development.

Beyond their stated concerns over worsening traffic, habitat loss, crowded schools, noise and the like is this: Many current residents simply don’t see what’s in it for them.

It’s not hard to look at much of the area’s residential development during the past generation and understand that point of view (with a few exceptions, such as I’On and Daniel Island, both of which were thoughtfully planned with quality public spaces).

WestRock’s creation of new park spaces at Summers Corner wasn’t done simply to mollify opposition. Instead, it’s central to marketing this community as one in harmony with its landscape.

Not only is 75 percent of the East Edisto acreage being placed in conservation, but a key design goal in the development itself is to ensure that each resident will live within a minute’s walk from a park or public garden.

Of course, it’s one thing to set land aside for future parks and public use, it’s another to build them before the homes.

“Fortunately, we’re in a position where we can make those big up-front commitments,” says Ken Seeger, president of WestRock Land and Development. “Most development companies cannot. They start incrementally.”

The first piece built was Buffalo Lake, named for a nearby farm that once held a buffalo (that occasionally escaped and made headlines in this newspaper).

On a few sides, the surrounding trees were thinned somewhat to provide better views of the water. But it’s largely a passive park, void of homes, with a pavilion designed by Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh.

A nearby canoe and kayak launch and a few fire pits round out the park that not only is designed to be enjoyed but also to set a mood as people approach Summers Corner by car. A walking trail also leads from there to The Commons, the central public space.

This area includes The Corner House, which is the sales house but also a usable cafe and meeting area, complete with coffee, sandwiches and craft beers.

Susan Watts, WestRock’s vice president, says, “We’re trying really hard to create more of a real place than a sales center.”

“It’s not just about the new buildings,” she adds. “It’s about the experiences you can create here. ... Our whole concept is to sort of emulate small-town South Carolina.”

The public spaces, shaped in part by LaQuatra Bonci Associates, a Pittsburgh landscape architect, also include trails with far-out birdhouses, a shed for gardening classes and plots for sustainable plants.

The first phase of the East Edisto was the Pine Hill, a business campus just down U.S. Highway 17A from Summers Corner.

Its entrance is marked by an expansive park, a 38-acre lake that was dredged to create a more cohesive shape. There’s also a walking trail around a lake as well as an iconic folly, a great piece of architecture with a windmill pavilion designed by architect Jim Thomas.

Its three slanted, overlapping roofs are supported by a few beams sunk into a concrete sill and a galvanized chain to steer the roof’s runoff into a small gravel circle.

“It’s practical, and it’s a little bit of a demonstration project, too,” Seeger says, adding the structure’s windmill and solar panels power the sign out front. “There really aren’t any people-oriented business parks. They’re all car-oriented.”

East Edisto, once a major concern for local conservationists, has turned into one of its success stories.

Dana Beach, director of the Coastal Conservation Leagues puts it this way: “If you think of what regional planning is all about, the question at some very high level is what should we develop, how should we develop it and what should be left undeveloped. That’s the gold ring of regional planning, to answer those three questions.”

Most of the attention at East Edisto has been placed on what should be conserved, he said, “but the other part of it that I think is equally worthy of applause is that the form-based code developed for this property will ensure that these places ... have mixed uses that will allow people to work near where they live or recreate near they work or shop.”

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.