Thriving education community transforms Charleston

MUSC President Ray Greenberg (left) and Charleston Mayor Joe Riley look out from the Marriott Hotel on Lockwood Boulevard over the site for the Horizon District in downtown Charleston.

One of the biggest changes Charleston has undergone during the past 40 years under Mayor Joe Riley happened so gradually many might have overlooked it.

The city became a college town.

Not in the sense that Charleston has no other major employers, but in the sense that students make up a sizeable slice of its downtown population.

The growth of the College of Charleston, in particular, but also of the Medical University of South Carolina, The Citadel and new institutions has mirrored that of the city as a whole and brought new visibility as well as thousands of new students, hundreds of new professors, scores of new buildings and businesses to a once-struggling city center.

They also have created new pressures on the livability and landscape in and around the city’s small-scale historic neighborhoods — ongoing challenges that the next mayor will inherit along with the benefits of all the jobs, economic impact and intellectual and cultural vibrancy.

The change has helped mask a significant demographic shift over the same period, as their presence helped counter the trend of downtown population loss.

Mayor Joe Riley not only managed the growing town-gown friction but also encouraged the city to offer a hand to emerging higher education institutions such as the Charleston School of Law, The Art Institute of Charleston and the American College of the Buildings Arts.

“What we have in Charleston and the region is an educational industrial economy, wonderfully huge and robust,” Riley said.

In 1975, the College of Charleston was only about a decade away from its nadir in the early 1960s, when the nation’s oldest municipal college had fewer than 500 students.

The early growth was sparked after the college was folded into South Carolina’s higher-education system, and there already were almost 5,400 students enrolled by 1975. They were taught by a faculty that numbered 121.

The college currently has more than 11,000 students and 500 faculty members. Even more dramatically, its number of graduates rose from 421 in 1974 to 2,218 last year.

Its campus has grown from 88 buildings to 140 over that same span, including new landmarks, such as its School of Business on Liberty Street, the Liberty Street Residence Hall, the Addlestone Library and the TD Arena.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. The college’s growth also brought in thousands of fresh faces. When Riley took office, only about 2 percent of its student body came from outside South Carolina, while out-of-state students make up a third of its campus today.

And the college wasn’t alone.

Enrollment at the Medical University of South Carolina was 1,824 a few years after Riley took office, and it was 2,900 last year. The Citadel has seen less growth, but its number of graduates still rose from 381 in 1975 to 514 last spring. Its budget rose from $11.7 million in 1975 to $107 million during the past fiscal year. In 1975, it offered two graduate degrees, while today it offers 22.

In 1985, Trident Technical College outgrew its former Bull Street home and moved its Palmer Campus to the former C.A. Brown High School near Columbus and East Bay streets — freeing up the former Avery Normal Institute property for a new life as the Avery Research Institute.

In 1977, the increasing vitality of the College of Charleston gave Riley one of his first major coups: convincing the famous composer Gian Carlo Menotti to locate a new comprehensive arts festival, which became Spoleto Festival USA, in the historic city.

“Spoleto would not have happened without (then college president) Ted Stern,” Riley said. “Ted Stern brought the assets of the College of Charleston, which was essential.”

The festival’s timing worked well. It began right as the college finished its spring term. Musicians and other artists slept in the dorms and performed in the Cistern and several other college venues. And that continued, particularly when the college acquired, renovated and reopened the Sottile Theatre on George Street, which had closed the year Riley took office.

And the college’s growing presence also was helping Riley with another major goal: revitalizing King Street.

“As we were working to restore King Street, part of our plan was to create housing above the stores,” Riley said. “Students are wonderful residents there, and a main street needs people on it. It needs life.”

The growing number of students also were gentrifying neighborhood streets in ever-increasing circles around the college — able to pay more rent than some of the previous working-class tenants that called the college home.

“Students are great urban pioneers,” Riley said. “They’re young and intuitively willing to explore.”

When Mike Seekings moved to Charleston in the early 1990s, he lived at Wentworth and Coming streets, next to the college’s campus.

Seekings, now a city councilman, a lawyer and chair of the city’s Town and Gown Committee, said he enjoyed the liveliness.

While the college has grown by several blocks, an even more profound impact has been felt on what Seekings calls it’s “off-campus campus,” the neighborhoods where so many of the students call home.

The number of students in the college’s residence halls has risen form 1,442 in 1975 to 3,776 last year — but that number still represents less than half its enrollment.

“The off-campus campus is bigger than the campus by a large number of people,” he said. “The college grew very quickly in terms of numbers, and that was the beginning of the tension between the campus and the neighborhoods. It was so rapid and not well planned out and certainly not well communicated.”

During the 1990s, a growing number of sparks began flying where students and residents intertwined, as late-night parties, parking problems and other annoyances piled up. On some streets, the students’ presence made them seem more safe and desirable, which drew homeowners, who in turn, would be awoken in the middle of the night.

In 1993, the city and college formed the Town and Gown Committee to look at ways to limit the impact of campus and off-campus student housing on nonstudent residents and generally improve the relations between city residents and the college.

Shortly afterward, the city passed an ordinance requiring bars to close at 2 a.m.

Meanwhile, concerns over downtown’s gentrification also caused the city to form a task force that advocated for more affordable housing to try to keep neighborhoods racially and economically diverse.

Seekings said over time, the Town and Gown Committee’s work has made a difference, as did a change that let campus police issue municipal citations. The city also created Livability Court to focus on violations such as noise and litter that affect residents’ quality of life.

And then College of Charleston President Alex Sanders also agreed to capping the enrollment growth, which rose by more than 6 percent just between 1997 and 1998 alone.

Since then, the college’s total number of undergraduate and graduate students has essentially plateaued, rising some years and dipping in others. In 2014, the college had 96 fewer students enrolled than in 1998.

“I never had the ambition of the college to get any bigger,” said Sanders, who also has taught courses at the college for 52 years. “But it was so popular, it was hard to contain it.”

Sanders said he realized there comes “a point of diminishing returns,” as far as the college’s expanding enrollment. “We could have always built more dormitories and more classroom space,” he said, “but there was a limit to how wide the sidewalks were.”

Seekings still lives next to the campus, though on a different street. “I have noticed a huge difference in the last six years, a huge difference in the positive,” he said. “We’ve addressed issues of the off-campus campus.”

Meanwhile, a growing number of students have moved northward, above Calhoun Street and even above the Septima P. Clark Parkway.

Robert Ballard, who has lived on Warren Street for almost 35 years, has seen the benefits and the growing pains. The college has built more dorms in and around its campus, particularly up St. Philip Street, which has seen the scale of its buildings change.

“Town and Gown put the heat on them to provide more housing, and they did,” Ballard said. “But there wasn’t a whole lot of forethought, so everything is in a row right down St. Philip Street. St. Philip Street is inundated.”

Riley also helped both the Charleston School of Law and the American College of the Building Arts get footholds during the past decade.

The city cooperated with both institutions as far as securing downtown properties for their campuses, and Riley even made phone calls to help raise money for the College of Building Arts.

“My job as mayor is I’m the designated hitter,” he said. “Whatever is the need of the community, I will respond to.”

The Charleston School of Law is centered next to the city’s visitors center, while the city helped arrange the College of the Building Art’s $3.5 million renovation of an old Trolley Barn for its new home — a project that broke ground earlier this year.

“The American College of the Building Arts will give to America something that does not now exist,” Riley said during the May ceremony. “And that’s what a great city does. You give things to others and to the country.”

Trident Tech’s enrollment peaked at 2,442 in 2009, creating such parking issues around its East Side campus that the college decided to reduce enrollment there to a more manageable level, moving its Division of Law-Related Studies to its main campus in North Charleston.

“I’m certain that Palmer has grown a lot since 1975,” said David Hansen, Trident’s director of public information, “but I’m afraid I can’t reliably say by how much. We had around 5,000 total students in the fall of 1975, and we have close to 15,000 this fall.”

With the Medical University, Riley’s role was more subtle. He pushed to keep the university’s flagship hospital downtown, which led to the successful completion of its iconic Ashley River Tower.

MUSC spokeswoman Heather Woolwine said Riley was influential because he understood the mutual dependency between the city and the university.

“If the city is healthy, so is MUSC, and vice versa,” she said, adding he helped create a special zoning district to reflect the unique needs of a growing teaching hospital and medical school.

The growth of downtown Charleston’s higher-ed institutions has helped mask one of downtown’s ongoing struggles: how to keep the middle class downtown as housing prices keep going up.

Andres Duany, a Miami architect who consulted with the city earlier this year, sounded the warning that downtown might lose equilibrium because its success is trending toward an “economic monoculture” of wealthy, older residents.

“You’re not going to notice it for a really ironic reason,” he added. “When you walk the streets, they’re full of young people, but that’s artificially induced by your colleges. ... What is missing here is the middle class.”

Seekings said the students’ presence is huge. “On any given day, the College of Charleston — just the students — represents about 25 percent of the population,” he said. “Do the math real quick.”

City Councilman Robert Mitchell has seen how students have moved into several predominantly black neighborhoods in search of more affordable rents.

“I sit out on my porch and I see (college students) walking by all the time, and I never saw that before,” he said in a 2014 interview. “You see them walking on the East Side, at night.”

Meanwhile, the growth and success of the Medical University has made the city a more attractive destination for retirees, many of whom consider the quality of a region’s health care along with climate, housing prices and other factors.

Another aspect to the growing educational presence has been the hundreds of professors, staff and other educated outsiders — an effect that is as real as it is hard to quantify.

As Riley ran for his final four-year term, one study ranked the Charleston metro area as having the biggest “brain gain,” the nation’s greatest percentage increase in the percent of its residents who hold bachelor’s degrees — a stat driven by more educated people moving here. It had risen from 25 percent to 32 percent in a decade.

“All those people bring energy and intelligence and emotional energy and philanthropic zeal and cultural patronage and so much more,” Riley said.

“That is something that is vastly under-recognized: so many talented people are here because they’re connected with the college, MUSC, The Citadel, Trident Tech, the Charleston School of Law.”

Seekings, who also teaches a course at the college, said he recently took an informal survey of the 30 students in his class.

Only three called Charleston home, but all of them indicated they wanted to stay here after graduation.

“Only one of them knew who Joe Riley was,” he added. “That’s not unusual over there. It’s crazy.”

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771 or at