Charleston No. 1 S.C. city

A carriage horse tour passes by a downtown Charleston home. File/Staff

Forgive some Charlestonians if they keep the cork nestled inside their champagne bottles upon hearing their city is again South Carolina's largest.

Simply put, many here have grown weary of the attention that comes from topping lists — even good ones.

That's because so much of Charleston's civic dialogue at the moment revolves around the pressures and problems associated with rapid population growth, not to mention its growing popularity among tourists.

Traffic congestion. New development. Loss of grand trees. School overcrowding. Even less unpaved area to absorb a heavy rain.

Also, the city's ability to draw new residents also is fueling a spike in housing prices — great for those who already own a home but crummy for those trying to find an affordable place to live.

Charleston's preservation goal has always been to preserve the city, not as a museum but as a living city for its own residents. But a growing number of its residents can no longer afford to live here — at least not in the same neighborhood where they grew up.

Two of the city's hottest issues are not indirectly related to its population growth. The city is making its largest revisions ever to its Board of Architectural Review since the board was created 86 years ago. The construction of new, much taller apartments and hotels up Meeting and King streets is part of the reason for the update.

The city's Planning Commission will review the plan, including new height rules, at a special meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday. Because of anticipated crowd, the meeting will be held inside Burke High School.

Meanwhile, while the city wants to channel more development energy in its suburbs west of the Ashley River, residents there also are ambivalent at best of some specific redevelopments in the works, including new homes at Ashley Hall Plantation or the new apartments on James Island where a movie theater once stood.

The reality that Charleston is now South Carolina's largest city likely will reverberate in future local elections for years to come, said Kendra Stewart, a College of Charleston political science professor.

"I think we already have seen quite a reaction just over the past few years from residents trying to do everything they can to stop growth," she said, adding that the growth issue goes well beyond Charleston to Mount Pleasant, Summerville and other areas.

"It's the whole MSA (metropolitan statistical area) that's exploding," she said. "Some of the fastest growth is taking place in Dorchester and Berkeley counties."

And it's not just new residents flocking here at a rate some have pegged at almost 50 per day.

Last year, for the first time ever, readers of Travel + Leisure magazine voted Charleston No. 1 in the tourism periodical’s ranking of best world cities. It marked the first time a U.S. destination earned the honor, but it wasn't the first time Charleston landed on top of a travel magazine’s survey.

In 2012, readers of Conde Nast Traveler named Charleston the top city in the world, while it also has taken the No. 1 U.S. ranking.

Meanwhile, Stewart says she expects more of the same.

"People who live in Charleston still think of Charleston as a quaint city," she said. "They don’t want to see the kind of solutions that cities generally have when they become this size, like dense housing, taller buildings, parking garages, as well as more mass transit."

“Growth is definitely a better problem to have,” she added, "but I think it will be a great challenge for our community to figure out how we want to address it."

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Robert Behre works as an editor and reporter. He focuses on the historical landscape, including architecture, archaeology and whatever piques his interest on a particular day.