Since Mayor John Tecklenburg took office, the city has been making big plans for West Ashley, its biggest suburb with 62,000 people and approximately 44 square miles, an area more than eight times larger than the peninsula.

While a lot of work has been done, most of it involved planning and sparking new conversations between residents, businesses and other local governments. Few changes are visible to the eye, though Tecklenburg points to new fire stations, pocket parks, drainage work as a sign of the city's renewed focus here.

Some residents are eager to embrace more change, hoping that a denser, less auto-dependent suburb will gain a greater sense of place — and lower the statistic that shows 84 percent of residents here leave West Ashley to work somewhere else.

Others are wary, concerned that certain redevelopment would erode the area's identity, the West Ashley that they've known for years. 

Diane Hamilton, a member of West Ashley's Revitalization Commission and president of the Maryville-Ashleyville Neighborhood Association, said West Ashley "is still a work in progress, and we want and we need community input. That's made the project successful so far and will continue to make it successful."

That input is expected to arrive in all sorts of ways, and no way might be more important than what city voters say on Nov. 5, when they decide who will be mayor for the next four years. 

Where Charleston began 

As the city focuses on West Ashley's future, it's also poised to commemorate its past.

It was here, on a peninsula bordered by Old Town Creek and the Ashley River, where the first successful English colony south of Virginia took root in 1670 on what today is the Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site. The city and state are laying plans to mark the 350th anniversary of its founding next year.

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A historical interpreter shaves off the bark from boards cut to make a fence around a garden at the Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site in West Ashley where Charleston began as a settlement in 1670. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Ultimately, the settlement soon moved across and down the Ashley River to another peninsula where a thriving city would be built.

City Councilman Peter Shahid, who has led the West Ashley Revitalization Commission, said West Ashley "has its certain identity, but it's been looking for its identity, too. It's the birthplace of Charleston. It should be the shining star of Charleston, but it became a suburb."

West Ashley remained agrarian for centuries, site of farms and several plantations, including today's historic sites of Middleton Place, Magnolia Gardens and Drayton Hall. After the Civil War, truck farms, phosphate mining and freedman's settlements began to reshape the land. And in 1960, the city that had left its shores returned, when the state's highest court ruled that Charleston could legally annex property across a river.

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An aerial photo from April 1964 of J.M. Fields and where Ashley Plaza Mall would soon be constructed, just off Sam Rittenberg Boulevard. File/ Post and Courier archives

That year also marked a heyday of sorts for the rapidly suburbanizing area. Ashley Plaza Mall featured some of the region's first air-conditioned retail space. Shahid remembers those days. 

"You had this brand new shopping area that was thriving in the late '60s and the '70s, and you saw this new mall which was one of the largest malls in the area, which was the Citadel, come along," he said. "We had movie theaters and places to shop and places to eat."

He also watched as the glory days began to fade.

"It deteriorated, and it took a while for that to happen," he said. "You didn't wake up one night and go 'Bang' and see what's going on. It took decades for that to occur."

By 2015, when Charleston voters went to the polls to elect their first new mayor in 40 years, West Ashley was the largest part of the city, at least measured by population. And it also was the place that candidates agreed needed the most help. 

A long, slow race 

A 19-member commission that Tecklenburg established in 2016 ultimately led to Plan West Ashley, a 200-page document that its creators hope will serve as a road map for improving the area's quality of life and protecting its unique historical, cultural and natural environment — a new vision for government and business leaders.

City Planner Jacob Lindsey said the consistent refrain from residents throughout that process was that they wanted more services, more retail offerings, more bicycle and pedestrian facilities and more work spaces. The plan focuses on five points, ranging from neighborhood preservation and housing to making sure the area is pedestrian- and bike-friendly. 

"Most people commute out of West Ashley, and people wanted to go and work and live in the same borough of the city," he said. "When we think of West Ashley, we know it needs to be a place that's great for residents to live, that has wonderful access to goods and services, improved transportation and preserved neighborhoods."

Despite its vast geography, Lindsey said the city has made tremendous strides in taking steps to put the plan in place. Most notable, he said, are the city's efforts on flooding and resilience, including the federal-assisted purchase and demolition of 32 frequently flooded homes in West Ashley's Shadowmoss neighborhood. 

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Two construction workers take a break while demolishing townhomes in the Shadowmoss neighborhood of West Ashley Wednesday July 10, 2019, in Charleston, SC. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

"We pulled people out of harm's way and created new park space," Lindsey said. "That effort in Bridge Pointe and efforts to flood-proof and waterproof our city are really a big step forward. It's leading the way in terms of our flooding efforts. ... It's a demonstration project in a way, but its a big step for the city."

Lindsey said the ongoing Dutch Dialogues process and other research are expected to map out further changes to West Ashley's problematic Church Creek Basin. 

Meanwhile, the city also has focused on the so-called "Dead Pig" site. While running for mayor, Tecklenburg campaigned in front of the shuttered Piggly Wiggly grocery store to emphasize his plans for improving West Ashley. The city since bought it, and Lindsey said the property will serve as a key gateway, proof of the city's commitment to revitalization efforts.

"That's a real demonstration that the city is willing to use its leverage, just like we did in the revitalization of downtown many, many years ago to proactively help and improve old commercial properties."

But the project is still on the boards. Charleston County announced it has abandoned its effort to reconfigure the nearby intersection of S.C. Highways 7 and 171, site of the so-called "suicide merge" where the two highways blend into three lanes. Instead, the county will focus on building new sidewalks and multi-use paths, landscaping and smaller road improvements in the area.

Another big change is in the works: Not only is Citadel Mall undergoing a renovation to handle a new Medical University of South Carolina campus, but a master plan is in the works that would re-brand the area as "Epic Center," a sort of Charleston version of Crystal City, a new urban area just south of Washington, D.C.

The plan envisions buildings up to 25 stories, taller than any other existing buildings in the Charleston region.

"I don't have a magic wand to go 'Voila, this is going to change,'" Shahid said. "What I do know is we are progressing in what I think is the right direction, consistent with this plan that the people want, that the people spoke about, that the people were engaged in doing."

"When we're revitalizing a place, it's not a sprint; it's a marathon," Lindsey said. "It's going to be visible on the ground, and that's what we're going to be focused on for the next few years."

Mount Pleasant-ification?

City Councilman Bill Moody, whose district includes some of West Ashley's older neighborhoods, is also among those who think progress has been slow.

"What I'm not seeing is any real collaboration," he said. "Its like a lot of things the last few years. We spent $150,000 too much on a study that is now gathering dust. I don't even see a vision. I have a vision, but I'm not the mayor."

Moody said he is encouraged by MUSC's project and hopes its opening will alleviate some traffic congestion. He said the city's decision to put power lines underground in front of its new Savannah Highway fire station and the memorial to the Charleston Nine will encourage other businesses to follow suit.

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Construction continues on the new Medical University of South Carolina location that will be in the footprint of the former two-story J.C. Penney building Tuesday August 27, 2019 in West Ashley. Areas of the parking lot will be developed as part of the new Epic Center plan. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

He also said the city's ongoing work along the West Ashley Greenway is a positive, too, adding there are "little things that give people hope."

"I don't want people to get discouraged and think we're not doing anything because we are doing something and you have to keep pushing forward," Moody said. 

Abbie Mobley, who grew up in Mount Pleasant but has lived in the Northbridge neighborhood of West Ashley for the past six years, said West Ashley residents are "seeing less talking and more concrete plans," but she is not convinced any of the plans will "substantially change the way we live in West Ashley."

"As I'm seeing Mount Pleasant change, I'm seeing West Ashley is mimicking it," Mobley said. "As people see what's happening in Mount Pleasant, they (West Ashley residents) are like 'Whoa, we don't want that.' ... There are lots of strip malls in West Ashley, and those are difficult to retrofit. But it doesn't need to look like Coleman Boulevard, either." 

Because West Ashley offers good neighborhoods but relatively little business or office space, that's causing volumes of traffic. 

Mobley's neighborhood said plans for the former Piggly Wiggly store presented over the winter and earlier this summer would have "Mount Pleasant-ified the neighborhood."

"The majority of people want to see controlled, responsible growth and sort of a careful, focused approach to infill construction," she said. 

Larry Freudenberg, whose family has owned one of the city's oldest businesses, Triest Agency, had the insurance company move from Broad Street to West Ashley in 1979. He said he's disappointed in the city's revitalization efforts because he sees "a lot of wheels spinning" but not much happening. He is not sure much has changed.

"West Ashley was always just a tax base for the city to gobble up as much land, annex as much as they could into the city and increase the tax base," he said. "I fully understand the downtown area and everything that we want to improve on the peninsula, but I think its time since they are doing fantastic — beyond anyone's dream — now it's time to concentrate on West Ashley."

But Charlie Smith, a real estate agent and member of the Revitalization Commission, said the city is on the right track.

"There are so many important things running around in the background that weren't there before," he said. "You can't see all of it at the same time because it's in various stages of development, but it's there."

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City of Charleston Director of Communications Jack O'Toole and Mayor John Tecklenburg walk through the Ashleyville/Maryville neighborhood where several new affordable housing units were unveiled earlier this year. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Diane Hamilton, president of the Maryville/Ashleyville Neighborhood Association and another member of the commission, also praised the effort.  

"I see a lot of new businesses coming in and I think that helps, but we're still looking for the impact to get down to where the people are and some emphasis on the neighborhoods," she said.

Smith said he hopes Epic Center will be allowed to become as dense as the current plan envisions, with 25-story buildings and all. "That's exactly what needs to be there."

However, Shahid said he's expects some pushback on the Epic Center plans for Citadel Mall because it contains "a dirty word, or what's been labeled a dirty word — 'density.'"

As specific projects such as Epic Center come up for specific city approvals, it will be clearer whether the plan enjoys broad public support or is seen as, in the words of Charleston County Councilman Brantley Moody, "a vision baked up in some urban planning hub in Miami."

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The site of the former Piggly Wiggly at the intersection of Old Towne Rd. and Sam Rittenburg Blvd. in West Ashley remains to be redeveloped in Tuesday August 27, 2019. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

In recent years, Summerville, Mount Pleasant and other communities have passed new plans calling for more intense, urban-style development in certain spots, only to see those plans thwarted by political blowback that ousted elected officials.

"West Ashley has it's certain identity but it has been looking for its identity, too," Shahid said. "It's the birthplace of Charleston, it should be this shining star of Charleston but it became a suburb."

Politicizing of West Ashley

West Ashley revitalization might have been the hottest topic in the 2015 mayoral race, and it remains a hot topic this time around, too.

Several of Tecklenburg's opponents criticized his work, and Plan West Ashley even prompted one woman to enter the race.

Sheri Irwin of West Ashley had not run for office before but decided to run for mayor after attending the West Ashley Revitalization Commission meetings and hearing proposals that she fears will encourage people to move away, such as dedicating bus lanes on certain highways.

"What I'm seeing is an urbanization," Irwin said. "There's a big difference between revitalization and urbanization." 

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Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg greets local musicians, including trombonist Bill McSweeney, who attend the start of the demolition of the former West Ashley Piggly Wiggly supermarket on Sumar Street in 2018. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Irwin said the city should focus on alleviating traffic by retiming stop lights, and she is concerned about dense new development at Citadel Mall.

"I don't want a bunch of high-rise buildings there, I don't know if the soil there could handle it," Irwin said. "Manhattan's a rock, here the soil isn't good for high-rise buildings like that."

City Councilman Mike Seekings voted against the city's $3 million purchase of the abandoned Piggly Wiggly site because he felt that money would have been better spent somewhere else. He said the city has spent an enormous amount of time and resources looking at West Ashley revitalization.

"From that came many great ideas and suggestions," Seekings said. "Unfortunately, from my view it's gone the way of many studies and implementation has lagged."

Seekings said the city should think first of infrastructure and flooding, pointing to the Glenn McConnell Parkway and Bees Ferry Road area as an example of where those two issues meet. In the short term, Seekings said a new bike and pedestrian bridge should be built over the Ashley River.

"We also need to go and just do a series of acquisition of and cleaning of drainage ditches all over West Ashley," he said. 

Former City Councilman Maurice Washington, another candidate seeking the mayor's office, said he feels city leaders aren't listening to residents there. 

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Emily Yoho, right, gets a treat for her daughter Charlotte Yoho, 4, at the West Ashley Farmers Market on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019 in Charleston. Establishing the farmers market was one of the things the city planned to do to breathe new life into West Ashley. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

"The don't want oversized hotels, they want homegrown businesses to stay," Washington said. "They want streetscapes and to curb over-development. They want protection of greenspaces and wetlands." 

City Councilman Gary White criticized the efforts as well, saying it's been "nearly non-existent" and the revitalization commission wasn't leveraged appropriately.

"It's not nearly what it was envisioned to be," he said.

He said revitalization of West Ashley has to be driven by private development. The redevelopment of Citadel Mall, he said, should have been briefed by the revitalization commission before it was brought to the City Council two weeks ago. He said redevelopment of the former Piggly Wiggly into municipal use isn't realistic.

But Mayor John Tecklenburg said West Ashley's revitalization, while it won't happen overnight, is on its way.

"Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was West Ashley," he said. 

He cited smaller city projects to underscore how the city is working in the area, including a new fire station that opened in the Carolina Bay, a new fire station under construction at the old Sofa Super Store site on Savannah Highway, and a planned police forensic lab off Bees Ferry Road. The city also opened a new senior center off Glenn McConnell Parkway in March and done $500,000 worth of drainage improvements in Ashley Hall Manor. The city also purchased a parcel at the end of Bender Street for a new park and rebuilt five nearby homes through its affordable housing efforts.

The city also has created a new tax district that will funnel new property tax payments toward a pot of money for public improvements.

"The difficulty of perception and the 'nothing happens' sentiment is that these projects take a long time," Tecklenburg said. "There's environmental research, permitting, and then it can all get moving. A typical road project takes five, six, seven years before it gets going." 

"The response from citizens is that they sense and see these things happening," he added.

What happens from here in West Ashley will be shaped by what city voters decide on Nov. 5, as well as by thousands of conversations still to come about traffic, density, flooding, affordability and what quality of life really means. 

Robert Behre contributed to this story.

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Reach Mikaela Porter at 843-937-5906. Follow her on Twitter @mikaelaporterPC. 

Mikaela Porter joined The Post and Courier in April 2019 and writes about the city of Charleston. Previously, Mikaela reported on breaking news, local government, school issues and community happenings for The Hartford Courant in Hartford, Conn.