Charleston city planners would like to see some large shopping centers in West Ashley eventually redeveloped as mini-downtowns, their vast parking lots filled in with buildings like one might find on King Street.
That concept was presented Wednesday to a room full of commercial real estate owners and developers, and was met with withering criticism.
The purpose of the potential zoning changes would be to see traditional suburban venues such as Kmart, Home Depot and Citadel Mall replaced over time or supplanted with multistory buildings full of shops, homes and offices.
No changes would be required immediately at the nine locations targeted by the city. "These are sites that could evolve over time," said Planning Division Director Christopher Morgan. "It's something we are very excited about, but we realize it represents a big change for these properties."
Morgan said the code would help create beautiful places full of life in the suburbs, but 40 or so commercial real estate owners representing properties that would be subject to the city's proposed rules didn't see it that way.
"This really horrifies me," said Jerry Garfinkle, representing Cisco's Cafe and Sunfire Grill in West Ashley. "If I build 20 apartments above a restaurant, I think you'd have 20 empty apartments."
Morgan's presentation repeatedly used the Big Kmart on Savannah
Highway as an example of what the city wants to discourage, repeatedly showing a photograph of the store's vast and mostly empty parking lot.
Steven Anastasion, owner of the site, was not amused. "This (plan) is great, if you can create a whole new city from scratch," he said. "We're in the real world."
And in the real world, Anastasion said, developers build to meet demand, and tenants such as Kmart have decades-long leases. To applause from the audience, he said the government should focus on improving schools and roads.
"The city is not going to impose a master plan," Anastasion was assured by Yvonne Fortenberry, director of the city's Division of Design, Development and Preservation.
Charleston has been steadily expanding the scope of its planning and zoning in suburban areas, however.
In the past few years, the city imposed lower height limits on new suburban buildings, and began requiring city approval to demolish buildings as few as 50 years old, if they are located along a commercial corridor, which includes most large thoroughfares.
The proposed zoning rules known as the "suburban renewal code" would expand upon an earlier city concept that called for the eventual development of "gathering places" at some key intersections in the suburbs.
The goal, then as now, was to encourage a village-like atmosphere where people could live and shop, reducing the need to drive from store to store.
City officials said the renewal code is a work in progress, but several developers noted the plan had been scheduled to go before the Planning Commission and City Council next month. It is now scheduled for consideration in September.
John Ryan, general manager of Citadel Mall, said the mall's parent company knows how to develop a fine "lifestyle center" that looks like a miniature downtown main street, but decisions about whether to build such things are based on local real estate market demands.
"You have to trust the developers," he said.