Redefining gateways to Charleston

Construction continues on 930 NoMo, a 430-unit student housing complex, at the base of the Ravenel Bridge on Morrison Drive on the Charleston peninsula. It’s expected to open in the fall.

Slowly, without much fanfare, the gateways to peninsular Charleston are undergoing what promises to become a dramatic change in how people will perceive the city upon arrival.

Only one new project, 930 NoMo, where Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge traffic exits onto Morrison Drive is under construction so far, but a half-dozen others on the drawing board promise to reshape the visual experience of entering the historic Holy City.

The proposed Sergeant Jasper project on Broad Street has received the most publicity, but WestEdge’s large new building proposed where Lockwood Boulevard meets Spring Street will be seen by even more motorists.

And those arriving via Interstate 26 soon could be met with a 100-foot-tall hotel and a multifamily building several times the size of the East Central Lofts — plus the Courier Square and possibly other large-scale development further south.

“I really think it’s unprecedented in the city’s history,” Mayor Joe Riley said of the ongoing building boom, which is expected to continue well after he leaves office next year.

The city’s northward urban expansion is fed not only by a booming tri-county economy and a downtown ranked as the nation’s best to visit but also by the city’s unique preservation ethic that acts to limit new construction.

“In a lot of American cities, you just take down old buildings and build something new,” Riley said. “Here, we don’t do that.”

The spate of new construction will change people’s sense of arrival because during the past century — when most people started arriving in Charleston by car rather than by boat or train — so many of the city’s approaches have been barren.

Regardless of which direction one drove, their trip to the historic district took them past many vacant or under-used lots, past few buildings worthy of a second glance.

“One of the knocks that’s always been on Charleston is what you’ve had to drive through to get to the historic city,” said Kristopher King, director of the Preservation Society of Charleston. “Great new buildings in these locations could really enhance people’s perception of the city.”

That perception already changed a bit after the Ravenel Bridge opened a decade ago, when the power lines — and an overpass — were removed across Meeting Street north of Line Street, opening a new vista of steeples for southbound traffic.

More streetscape work is on tap for Huger Street between Morrison Drive and King Street, which is scheduled to receive $2.5 million worth of new lighting, curbs, sidewalks and an 8-foot-wide paved path for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The northward creep of new construction reflects a simple real estate reality, King said.

“That’s where all your land is — your developable land,” he said. “We also agree that’s the appropriate place for the development of the peninsula.”

Anyone who leaves the city this year and returns by automobile a decade later could be stunned by the transformation they see upon their return. For those crossing the Ashley River bridge, what once was a single-story seafood store could be replaced by 10 WestEdge, a building whose tallest portion will reach nine stories and that will include retail, a restaurant, a full-service grocery, about 350 apartments and almost 900 shared parking spaces.

And that WestEdge project is just one example.

Winslow Hastie, director of preservation for the Historic Charleston Foundation, said the new development is pushing the limits of what most had thought of as the peninsula.

“Cumulatively, when you look at it, it’s daunting, and I’m a booster, I think we’ve got to absorb a certain amount of regional growth,” he said, adding that developers have other large-scale projects in the works on the northern peninsula that have not been made public yet. “I can’t even keep track. Literally, my head was spinning one week, we went to so many meetings.”

The additional density will be crucial in helping the city and region justify a better public transit system, and the city’s growing urban footprint also will lead to more walking and biking. But a major challenge will be whether the city’s transit improvements keep pace.

“That’s the biggest issue when you get down to it — how are we all going to move around?” Hastie said. “Not to say that the automobile is going to go away by any means, but we just need options.”

King agreed, “We’ve got 19th century infrastructure on the peninsula.”

But that’s not the only challenge.

City Councilman Robert Mitchell, whose northeastern peninsula district includes several of the development sites, said his constituents are wary about gentrification.

“They’re not excited about it because they still feel they’re being forced out,” he said. “That’s going to be the bottom line. I don’t know if that mind-set is going to change or not. It’s now a new day. ... In five or six years, it’s going to be totally different.”

Mitchell said he encourages his district residents to speak out to slow down the process and help ensure that some developments include workforce housing, which the city defines as being within reach of those making at least 80 percent of the annual median income.

The building at 10 WestEdge will have 15 percent of its units meeting that parameter, though Mitchell noted many cannot afford even that.

“We as people have to be about where we live. We have to start getting involved,” he said. “If you wait for people to come knock on your doors, it’s not going to happen.”

Riley said one of the greatest challenges posed by the wave of new development is to ensure the buildings are designed and built well — so that they add to the city’s rich architectural character.

While transportation, drainage and other issues can be addressed over time, Riley said, “if the design is wrong, there’s nothing you can do about it after the building is built,”

That’s one reason why the city recently brought in nationally known architect and urbanist Andres Duany to review the city’s Board of Architectural Review process and suggest changes to ensure the city gets better buildings.

City Council is expected to act on Duany’s recommendations soon, but those changes — such as dividing the board into two and have one focus on new construction — won’t solve the problem alone.

King noted that Duany said the scale of these buildings — many are scheduled to be six to nine floors — is not something Charleston is proficient with. Only a few local buildings, such as the Francis Marion Hotel, the People’s Building and the Fort Sumter Condominiums — originally built as a hotel — are that tall.

“The design challenge is we always look at context as a departure point for design,” he said, but most of these new projects have few nearby historic buildings from which their architects can draw inspiration, “so that puts more pressure on their design.”

Another challenge is developers who aren’t invested in the Charleston area but who are just looking at the numbers — and the relatively blighted state of the property now.

“We’ve been pushing for quality, and some of these developers are kind of shocked. They say, ‘You should be thanking me for building in this former blasted-out, scary industrial area,’ ” Hastie said.

Convincing them that these new buildings — and their streets — deserve quality materials, ground floor retail and good detailing can be difficult.

“Their argument is it’s expensive, the dirt is expensive, the soils are poor here, they have to pile everything,” Hastie said. “There’s a litany of constraints that they say it’s difficult to build high-quality stuff, and that’s frustrating.

“I work with developers all the time. At times I’m a little bit like ‘Cry me a river.’ It’s just a matter of how willing you are to invest on the front end on design.”

And the situation grows more tense when the city’s zoning might not match the surrounding neighborhood — or what residents there expect, said architect Chris Schmitt.

“Another thing that plays into all of these frustrations is the ongoing conflict between what the zoning allows in all these areas and then the conditions on the ground, where the buildings are two and three stories high,” he said. “The process is not without its pain, no matter where you are on the game board.”

Some looked at this month’s battle over the Sergeant Jasper’s property as a litmus test about what might come.

At its property at Charleston’s southwestern gateway, the Beach Co. had proposed a dense, low-rise development, then a complex with a tower that reached more than 200 feet high. It re-did its design to lower the tallest portion to 159 feet — the height of its current, vacant building — but the Board of Architectural Review denied that as out of scale for the city.

Some who opposed it said they fear it would set off a domino effect of other large-scale projects, and Hastie said that debate — which is not over — is starting to illustrate the chafing between private property rights and the city’s development controls.

“As the stakes become higher and property values rise and you get these out-of-town developers, the potential returns they’re looking at become so much greater,” he said, “and the pressures on the city, staff, the BAR, nonprofits and the neighborhoods will increase. There’s going to be such pressure to push, push, push to go higher, go bigger and go denser. And that’s what worries me.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.