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Boom & Balance

5 road projects threaten long-established Black communities across the Lowcountry

JOHNS ISLAND — Abe Jenkins is visiting his friend Anna Fields White. They chat outside her shop, Fields Grocery, on a cool and sunny midafternoon as cars and pickups whiz along River Road, just a few feet away.

Facing the store is Fields Farm, one of two on Johns Island still operated by Black families.

“Sometimes I have to wait 10 to 15 minutes before I can cross the road,” White said, adding that in the past couple of months, she has witnessed four accidents just this side of the curve in the road.

The store was opened by her parents in 1957. It sits next to a praise house that’s at least a century old. River Road used to be unpaved, Jenkins said. He remembers spending hours after school at The Progressive Club, a rural community center operated by his grandfather Esau Jenkins.

This area once was considered remote. Today, River Road features several new subdivisions and a lot more traffic. Government officials are planning to extend Interstate 526 from West Ashley across a part of Johns Island and into James Island where it will meet up with the connector. Plans also are afoot to widen Bohicket Road between Maybank Highway and the Betsy Kerrison Parkway. There is even some talk of upgrading oak-lined River Road. All this prospective infrastructure work has White and Jenkins very worried.

“It is impacting existing settlements where people are living,” Jenkins said. “It’s going to increase development, increase the traffic — it’s just going to add more to a rural area that’s already terribly hit with development.”

He’s worried about new flooding caused by all the construction that can affect long-established homes. He’s worried about how gentrification threatens the historic identity of Johns Island. He’s worried that an influx of middle-class and wealthy homeowners will transform the island’s economy, making it more difficult for low-income African Americans to get by. He’s worried that so much change in such a short period of time will drive off more and more young Black people.

“The African American community is almost becoming extinct,” he said.

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Anna Fields White (right) has worked in her store beside River Road on Johns Island, where customers stop for a snack or drink, for more than 60 years. She's pictured here on March 5, 2021. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

In the past, discriminatory federal programs inflicted harm on Black residents. But things have changed significantly in recent years. Now, the agencies involved in road projects strive to engage communities, limit environmental and cultural impacts, and then mitigate impacts that can’t be avoided. There is more coordination than ever, more awareness of local grievances, more outreach and more willingness to listen to critics.

But some neighborhood advocates say it’s not enough, and that they are only made aware of new road projects once the plans are in place. This limits their ability to exercise influence early in the process and ensure that the benefits of any project outweigh the harm it inflicts on established communities.

“They ask for input, but the plans are already made up,” Jenkins said. “The problem, as I see it, is that people really don’t feel like they’re being heard. That’s the biggest issue. So there’s a lack of trust.”

No one is flatly against development, Jenkins added. But it should be pursued in a way that protects the interests of local people.

“They’ve got to have some stake in the game,” he said.

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Abe Jenkins, grandson of Esau Jenkins, looks across River Road toward Fields Farm on March 5, 2021, on Johns Island. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The planned road work on Johns Island is just one example of how Black communities are bearing the brunt of development and infrastructure projects.

  • On James Island, I-526 likely would stretch across the Stono River and sensitive marshland adjacent to James Island County Park on its way to the connector. The project as conceived would impact people living along Terrabrook Lane, Riverland Drive and Central Park Road, as well as homeowners along Ellis Creek.
  • In Cainhoy and the northern reaches of Daniel Island, the widening of Clements Ferry Road would hasten the gentrification of a historic Black settlement community.
  • In Mount Pleasant, the S.C. Highway 41 project again threatens another historic Black neighborhood, the Phillips community, which sits adjacent to the large Dunes West development.
  • And in Hilton Head, work on the causeway again would impact the old Stoney community, one of the last remaining Black neighborhoods on the island.

“This has been an issue since beginning of highway projects,” said Jason Crowley, communities and transportation program director at the Coastal Conservation League. “In the Lowcountry, African American communities were the path of least resistance and didn’t really have a voice.” And too often, that’s still the case, he said.

Generally speaking, regional growth is good. Everyone wants a healthier, more diverse economy.

But growth comes with a host of challenges and questions. And in the Lowcountry, it always seems to be a zero-sum game, several community leaders said. For the majority to benefit, a minority somewhere must pay a price.

In a Jan. 26 White House memorandum, President Joe Biden acknowledged the damage wrought by federally funded highway programs and related housing discrimination.

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Anna Fields White greets a neighbor on March 5, 2021, near her store on River Road. Behind them is an old praise house that's been there for more than a century. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

“The creation of the Interstate Highway System, funded and constructed by the Federal Government and State governments in the 20th century, disproportionately burdened many historically Black and low-income neighborhoods in many American cities,” Biden said. “Many urban interstate highways were deliberately built to pass through Black neighborhoods, often requiring the destruction of housing and other local institutions. To this day, many Black neighborhoods are disconnected from access to high-quality housing, jobs, public transit, and other resources.”

The effects have been profound. African Americans have been marginalized by these policies and denied opportunities to accumulate intergenerational wealth.

“The Federal Government must recognize and acknowledge its role in systematically declining to invest in communities of color and preventing residents of those communities from accessing the same services and resources as their white counterparts,” Biden said.

Interstate 526

The I-526 project really has two parts: improvements to the western part of the loop, from Virginia Avenue through West Ashley, and improvements to the eastern side into Mount Pleasant. A separate, but related project would extend the elevated roadway from Savannah Highway across Johns and James islands and to the connector.

The $1 billion project in North Charleston requires a bigger right-of-way corridor, which would encroach on some communities, displacing single-family homes, apartment buildings, mobile homes and community centers, according to a project report. The neighborhoods of Russelldale, Highland Terrace, Liberty Park and Ferndale would be disproportionately impacted, the report states.

By the same token, project managers have invited residents to share their concerns and recommendations about bike and pedestrian safety, landscaping, lighting, speeding, and stormwater runoff. The effort to address the consequences of the project and use it as an opportunity to make other improvements is evident. Less evident is whether widening the roadway will relieve traffic significantly in the long term. Some studies suggest that enlarging highways induces demand, which leads ultimately to more traffic and more congestion.

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Greg York (center) with Architecture Document Solutions looks over one of four alternatives for the I-526/I-26 interchange project with Lowcountry Corridor West project team members Michael Pitts (left) and Josh Mitchell during a 2019 public meeting at the Charleston Area Convention Center in North Charleston. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Ted Creech, S.C. Department of Transportation’s assistant director for public relations, said the I-526 West project, which is furthest along, has gone through many planning iterations and many community outreach cycles. It has adhered to the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires a careful assessment of environmental and community repercussions.

DOT officials seek to strike a balance “between achieving the need and purpose of the project and eliminating or minimizing the impacts of the project, and then mitigating those impacts,” Creech said. “With regard to minority communities, there are important tenets and important regulations that ensure we will do whatever we can do to not impact one portion of the community more than others.”

To do so, the agency follows environmental justice guidelines first laid out in the 1964 Civil Rights Act “to identify ways to achieve an equitable distribution of benefits and burdens.” It assembles a Community Advisory Council consisting of local residents, it puts together a Community Infrastructure Enhancement Plan, and it partners with agencies such as the state Housing Authority and education groups to provide affordable housing and student scholarships to displaced families.

Whether this is just compensation or something else depends on whom you ask.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said much has changed in the approach to highway-building, and DOT has made huge strides. Officials today are far more attuned to social and economic justice issues and strive to be fair.

“I still hear as mayor, 60 years later, memories of how (the Interstate 26 and Crosstown) projects impacted neighborhoods,” he said. “So I think it’s just become part of our culture, generally speaking, in the city, to become a little more thoughtful and intentional.”

On James Island, I-526 would include entrance and exit ramps along Folly Road, and possibly Riverland Drive, which concerns local residents. Already, Riverland Drive, which connects to Maybank Highway, is used as an alternative to Folly Road during high-traffic periods and a throughway for parents picking up children at Murray-LaSaine Montessori School, said James Blake, who owns property at the corner of Riverland Drive and Central Park Road, in an area largely inhabited by African Americans. Vehicles spilling off I-526 onto heavily used local roads surely will make things worse, he said.

Blake and local resident Eleanor Pinckney said they only learned about the status of the project after various “alternatives” had been defined, and that they feel they are being asked to “pick the one that least impacts you.”

It would have been nice to attend early meetings before any formal plans were drawn up, Blake said.

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The area near the intersection of Central Park Road and Riverland Drive, which includes Greater Bethel AME Church, could be impacted by the extension of Interstate 526 and its exit and entrance ramps. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Clements Ferry Road

Fred Lincoln, a member of the historic Jack Primus community near Cainhoy, said Black residents were not in the loop early on in the planning process for the widening of Clements Ferry Road, but have since become engaged.

“I think the perfect word is ‘placating,’” he said.

DOT was in charge of the first phase of the project, now complete; Berkeley County is overseeing the $64 million second phase, which focuses on the upper part of the road.

Lincoln is concerned not only about properties in the new right of way but also environmental impacts and the threat to a historic graveyard. Already a centuries-old live oak called the Meeting Tree was removed to make way for the upgraded roadway.

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Fred Lincoln opens a gate leading to Cainhoy Plantation on Oct. 16, 2020. Lincoln and his family members have access to the plantation because their family cemetery is located on the land. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

The dye has been cast, Lincoln said. So he and others now are trying to be proactive: Rather than sell their properties, they want to rezone them for commercial use, then lease them to doctors and lawyers and small-business operators, he said.

“How can we benefit from the reality that Clements Ferry Road is going to be a commercial hub?” Lincoln said. “Are we going to sit there and cry about it, or are we going to join in and make a few dollars?”

It may not always be evident to passersby, but there’s a lot at stake, including the ability to secure and build intergenerational wealth, Lincoln said. The “fair-market value” of property today — the money families might receive for giving up their homes — hardly compares to the future value of that property after the area gentrifies.

“Once you take away that history, that pride, and the sacred land on which all this is built, you can’t put it back together again,” he said.

Meanwhile, just south of Cainhoy, the $187 million effort to address traffic congestion on S.C. Highway 41 seems at an impasse: African American residents in the historic Phillips community, through which the highway runs, don’t want it widened since doing so would require more infringement on their properties; the mostly White residents of the sprawling Dunes West development don’t want Dunes West Boulevard widened and used as a bypass around the Phillips community because, they say, Highway 41 is already there and presents the more logical choice for upgrade.

Charleston County officials, who are taking the lead on the project, have sought to address concerns from both parties, arguing that the right of way for Dunes West Boulevard was designed to accommodate a four-lane road without using additional property along the perimeter.

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Jonathan Ford and Richard Habersham of the Phillips community gather with several local groups on Sept. 3, 2020, in Mount Pleasant to discuss the county’s plan for S.C. Highway 41. At the time, the plan called for widening the highway to a five-lane road that would run through the middle of the historic Phillips Community. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The Phillips community has gained a variety of allies, including the Coastal Conservation League, Historic Charleston Foundation, Charleston Preservation Society, Save Shem Creek, Charleston Moves, Lowcountry Land Trust, East Cooper Land Trust, Southern Environmental Law Center, Center for Heirs Property Preservation and the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors.

Nevertheless, the most recent alternative, presented to the public on March 9, provoked strong objections from Dunes West residents. In an email to residents, the Property Owners Association put it this way: “We accept that Dunes West Boulevard will be widened within its existing right of way, even now. What we don’t accept is it being widened instead of all of the existing Highway 41 being widened to accommodate four lanes of travel.”

A vote on how to proceed could come in April.

U.S. Highway 278

On Hilton Head Island, one of the last remaining African American communities now is facing the possibility of new encroachment as a result the U.S. Highway 278 project.

The Mackay Creek Bridge, one of four bridges that are part of the causeway to the island, was built in 1956 and now needs to be replaced. DOT and Beaufort County officials decided to transform the project into a $300 million initiative to upgrade most of the corridor.

When it was first built it went right through the (Stoney community),” said Jessie White, director of the Coastal Conservation League’s Beaufort office. “Then they widened it, displacing more community members and posing a safety risk. ... Some of the properties are right on the edge of a 60 mph highway that people are speeding down. It’s really a stark juxtaposition.”

Highway 278

A stretch of U.S. Highway 278 extends across the marshes and rivers on its way to Hilton Head Island. A project now underway will result in infrastructure upgrades, but members of the historic Stoney Community are concerned about potential negative impacts. Coastal Conservation League/Provided

White said the priority should be to retain the community’s sense of place, and to ensure its members benefit from the upgrades.

Beaufort County, the town of Hilton Head and DOT are coordinating with representatives of the Stoney community, including Alex Brown, who now has a seat on Town Council, and members of the community oversight committee.

But White wonders who exactly the causeway improvements will help.

“Is the town ... making these changes that will impact its own community to accommodate outside people?” she asked. “Why? To let more people get to the beach?”

DOT’s intentions are good, she said. It’s evident they are going above and beyond the call of duty, for this project and others.

“But it’s still not enough, because it’s not proactive engagement,” she said. “It’s ‘How do we keep you from being too upset,’ not ‘How do we enhance your community?’”

Creech said his agency increasingly seeks not only to do little or no harm but also to offer enhancements to neighborhoods affected by road projects.

“We try to go beyond what’s required to try to understand how we can improve a road or bridge and also help communities,” he said.

Originally, the causeway was just two lanes, and it bifurcated the Stoney settlement, Brown said. Then it widened to four lanes, requiring removal of some family properties. In one example, a woman refused to abandon her house, despite its close proximity to the highway. With her reluctant consent, contractors removed her porch. Her front door was only a few feet from the edge of the road.

The neighborhood once included a gas station, a post office and mercantile shops, he recalled. As development consumed the island, this old Gullah-Geechee community tried to hang on. But it has been badly damaged.

Now, Brown is hoping the only point of entry to Hilton Head Island can be improved with gracious roadways and new economic opportunities for African Americans who remain.

Maybe there’s a chance to be creative, he said. “The goal is to rebuild the community.”

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com.

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