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North Charleston trying to balance residential life with commercial development

As the state's third-largest city explodes with commercial and residential growth, North Charleston officials find themselves performing a balancing act of trying to maintain the residential character of the city's neighborhoods while also welcoming new business.

Leading a city that has taken an aggressive approach to economic development since the mid-1990s, city officials want North Charleston to be a business-friendly community, but one that also doesn't threaten residents' quality of life.

The issue has led to tension between residents and business interests — tension often displayed at committee meetings where neighborhoods fight against rezoning decisions that could allow commercial encroachment.

"It's quite a balancing act for the council," said Councilman Bob King, who chairs the Public Safety Committee. "We have to look at every zoning issue on an individual basis.”

Communities like Northwood Estates, Ferndale and Singing Pines have largely preserved their residential pockets and kept businesses from penetrating their subdivisions. In part, that's due to the help of City Council members and community leaders who promise to protect the neighborhoods against any development that would bring heavy traffic to the quiet streets where kids bike and play.

Still, threats of encroachment loom on the fringes of those neighborhoods, which are located near the bustling Rivers Avenue corridor. Some, like Deer Park, are already experiencing the negative impacts of commercial growth.

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Cars leave businesses and merge into traffic on University Blvd. Wednesday, July 31, 2019 in North Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

In other neighborhoods, though, residential and commercial life harmoniously coexist. In Park Circle, for example, vacant lots and industrial properties have been revitalized to include restaurants, retail stores and bars. Although some shops back up to residents' backyards, the area is attractive to millennials and others who enjoy walking from their homes to shops and breweries.

Some mishaps 

The 1996 closure of the former Charleston Naval Base spurred North Charleston's aggressive approach to economic development, part of a larger regional effort to replace lost jobs. Today, the city has a diversified economy and robust retail market — the state's largest — but some officials say the city has made some missteps by allowing some businesses too close to homes.

In the Deer Park and Northwood Estates area, off University Boulevard, medical offices sit on the outskirts of the neighborhoods. Some residents enjoy being able to walk to medical appointments, and the added business has been an economic stimulus for the city. But the increased commercial presence has burdened residents with more traffic on two-lane streets, King said.

Speeding commuters and large trucks that use roads as cut-throughs have raised safety concerns among the area's residents who are advocating for more speed humps.

More traffic is coming to the neighborhood, too. The Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority recently opened a new 4-acre park-and-ride lot on Melnick Drive.

"It's upending their quality of life," said Northwood Estates Civic League President Russell Colleti.

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Cars leave businesses and merge into traffic on University Blvd. Wednesday, July 31, 2019 in North Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Council leaders acknowledge the same.

"We've made some mistakes in that area," King said.

Councilwoman Virginia Jamison noted that though Deer Park and Northwood Estates are gridlocked by gas stations, car dealerships and storage facilities, much of the area lacks walking paths and sidewalks.

She said residential and commercial properties can successfully coexist when livability for residents is prioritized. 

"Commercial growth and development without considering livability in the surrounding communities creates headaches for all of us," she said.

More recently, city leaders have backed residents in that area who want to keep businesses from encroaching any further.

For years, a woman on Dantzler Drive has tried to get her home rezoned neighborhood commercial to help her sell the property. But her request has been denied repeatedly by city officials.

Peaceful Coexistence

There are some places, though, where mixed-use development is working well.

Park Circle residents are keeping a watchful eye to ensure businesses don't expand far into the historic neighborhood, and some have complained about the number of bars. But many locals appear to appreciate the mix.

City officials pointed to areas like East Montague and O'Hear Avenues where old, boarded-up buildings have been revamped into a thriving district in walking distance for many young families.

There are also plans to turn the abandoned North Charleston Garco Mill into a new mixed-use development that will include 60,000 square feet of office space and 20,000 square feet for a food hall. There will also be a public park outside nearby.

William Cogswell of WECCO Development said community engagement is the key to achieving peaceful coexistence between residents and businesses.

Residents in North East Park Circle had initial reservations about traffic that would come as result of the Garco Mill project, but Cogswell said project leaders met with the neighborhood to address those concerns.

"If you're not supported by the local community, the residential community, you’re not going to be successful," said Cogswell, who also is a Republican state representative from Charleston.

Some see commercial development as the answer to removing blight in the city.

In Russelldale, off Rivers Avenue, a once-vacant lot now features a new children's hospital. Tony Grasso, the Russelldale neighborhood president, said the new facility is an asset.

Grasso, who owns six properties in the subdivision, received interest years ago from a group of doctors who wanted to build surgery centers on Willis Drive. Though the plans didn't pan out, Grasso welcomed the idea of expanding the commercial development along Rivers into the largely low-income neighborhood.

"If a hospital came to me right now and asked for all six properties, I’d give them the keys," Grasso said. "Give me a fair price of the value of my proprieties, and I’d gladly do it.”

Voicing concerns

The city is currently mapping out its 10-year Comprehensive Plan that will guide city officials in making decisions around land-use, housing, cultural resources, transportation and economics. 

In previous surveys, residents have asked the city to prioritize issues like preservation of existing neighborhoods, school programming, substandard housing conditions, traffic management, and balancing growth with the availability of services and infrastructure.

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A home on Dantzler Drive is being used for parking at a nearby restaurant off of University Boluevard Wednesday, July 31, 2019 in North Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

City officials said they hope the new plan will prioritize quality-of-life issues. King said the city must also continue to work with residents to protect their neighborhoods, though he added that won't be possible in every circumstance.

Still, community members should continue to pack-out committee meetings and voice their concerns about encroachment, fighting to preserve the residential feel of their communities, King said. In many cases, it's worked.

"That’s what we want," King said. "They need to come to our meetings. We do listen to them. ... We’ve turned down some because of that. We need that community input. They need to be involved.”

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