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Flooding, affordable housing a focus for Charleston's 10-year plan, public meetings start Thursday

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As Charleston leaders map out a 10-year vision of the city they are focusing on the existential crises the coastal community faces — climate change, flooding and affordable housing. A file photo from July 1, 2020 of Marvin Avenue in West Ashley. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

As city employees and consultants craft the next decade of Charleston's future, they say flooding and affordable housing will be front of mind. 

Municipal leaders are required to update their comprehensive plan every 10 years — it's the single-most important planning document that dictates how a city grows and how neighborhoods, roadways and communities are shaped.

Ten years ago, leaders wanted to maintain strong neighborhoods so they didn't commercialize. Jacob Lindsey, the city's planning director, said officials also wanted to build a transportation network and maintain a viable downtown. 

"That was before we had faced five consecutive years of major flooding," Lindsey said. "That was before our current housing affordability crisis became so acute."

Lindsey said the city has partnered with the team of consultants that worked on the Dutch Dialogues analysis of the city and Community Data Platforms housing analytic specialists "to bring a new understanding of data and challenges facing our city." 

The new plan will be called the Charleston City Plan. 

"The city of Charleston faces a number of existential threats, including sea level rise and the current housing crisis," Lindsey said. "The city's plan has got to assess these threats and provide real solutions informed by every one of our citizens."

On affordability, Lindsey said Community Data Platforms will take account of the cost of housing in relation to resident income levels so city leaders can understand "why the region has become unaffordable and what our city can do to respond to that challenge."

Lindsey said other cities — Boston, New York, Nantucket, R.I. — have taken this approach.

Jason Crowley, Communities and Transportation program director at the Coastal Conservation League, said the city's decision to focus on housing affordability reinforces the city's support of a $20 million affordable housing bond in 2017. 

Crowley said that while the 10-year plan will shape the future, success for affordable housing lies in how City Council shapes policy from it and amending zoning codes to allow for different types of housing, like rentable accessory dwelling units or duplexes. 

On flooding, Lindsey said consultants will compile firsthand accounts from residents so the city can create a comprehensive map of how flooding works throughout the city — "an effort of this scale has never been attempted before," Lindsey said — and mapping the entire city by each watershed. 

Phil Dustan, a biology professor at the College of Charleston and a founder of the Lowcountry Flooded States of America, a grassroots resident group against the practice of fill and build development, has tried to create that exact map as well.

He said the city has no choice but address sea level rise, climate change and the results of patchwork development and build-up of impervious surfaces. He doesn't have much faith the plan will turn into action. 

"It's gotten to the point, if the city doesn't begin to think about this and do something about it, it'll become catastrophic rather than just chronic," Dustan said. 

Lindsey said he expects to see some "fairly significant changes" to development, echoing the advice of the Dutch Dialogues researchers who recommended the city avoid developing in low-lying areas and instead build on higher and dryer ground. 

City Council has set aside $350,000 for the effort — "a darn good deal," according to Lindsey. He said other cities pay upwards of $1 million for similar work. 

Mayor John Tecklenburg said the city is at a "critical juncture in the city's history" and hopes residents are engaged and speak their minds.

Community engagement efforts will begin in earnest on Thursday with two virtual meetings scheduled. Such meetings will continue through October. To sign up to attend a virtual meeting, go to www.charlestoncityplan.com, click on the "Get Involved" tab and scroll to the meeting you'd like to attend. Click on the date and time meeting and register there.

Reach Mikaela Porter at 843-937-5906. Follow her on Twitter @mikaelareporter. 

Mikaela Porter joined The Post and Courier in April 2019 and writes about the city of Charleston. Previously, Mikaela reported on breaking news, local government, school issues and community happenings for The Hartford Courant in Hartford, Conn.

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