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Commentary: A critical crossroads in the (over)development of Charleston

Jackie Morfesis

Jackie Morfesis

I have the utmost respect for all those who lovingly labor for the revitalization of our neighborhoods, including but not limited to West Ashley, the downtown peninsula, James Island and Johns Island. This includes the visionaries, architects, engineers, construction crews, business owners, public servants and citizen volunteers. Their time and expertise are invaluable.

However, I believe that we have come to a critical crossroads. Residents of Charleston and our surrounding region are growing weary, even despondent, at the runaway train of development that has pummeled our city and outlying areas.

It is not that we are all rallying for historic preservation, though certainly there is a strong contingent that stands up for and protects the history, beauty, charm, culture and legacy of our region.

Instead, what we are facing is the constant remaking, rebranding and reworking of everything that has felt familiar about the place we call home.

Clearly there are times when renovation is not only necessary but also crucial to our livability and future. The West Ashley Revitalization Committee, under the leadership of City Councilman Peter Shahid, should be commended for all of its hard work, especially the comprehensive plans to address drainage problems in our neighborhoods. We are all grateful.

Yet every day, it seems that we wake up and read or see one more story about a new luxury hotel going up in our city. How many luxury hotels do we really need? The great irony is that while we build hotel after hotel, we are at the same time taking away much of what makes Charleston “Charleston.” Places hold energy, and when we take away our green spaces, raze our palmetto trees (as was done on Folly Beach and in other locations), cut back and uproot our beautiful grand oaks (especially in West Ashley and Johns Island), we are removing not only nature but the character of our region.

I admit that I am a romantic at heart. I remember the days when there were horses on Folly Beach — one, in fact, was stabled in my grandparents' backyard. I remember the old grocery stores on nearly every corner, including my family’s at Morris and St. Philip streets. I remember such simple joys as gathering around the dinner table filled with family and friends. But today, it seems that we need a new restaurant every week with a new, unexplored cuisine. Or another entertainment venue or attraction.

No one is against progress. We are not unappreciative of Charleston's becoming a desired tourist destination with much to offer. However, in our effort to create a Charleston that is not only desirable but increasingly lucrative, we are destroying the Charleston that attracted people here in the first place. And that includes her history, buildings and spaces.

Battle fatigue is real. In my own neighborhood, a 280-unit apartment complex is planned to be built on the current site of the Publix supermarket at Ashley Landing Shopping Center. We can barely navigate the traffic now, much less with hundreds more cars that these new apartments would bring to this area. But existing zoning regulations play a large role in determining the extent to which residents can push back.

Again, no one rightly argues that renovation and revitalization are not necessary or needed. But the divide between those who seek development and those who have grown weary of the constant development of our region is a chasm that grows wider and deeper by the day. This polarization is not healthy, productive or fruitful for our collective future. I am not advocating that we take the train off the tracks. But I am asking — pleading — that we slow down the train before it crashes. 

Jackie Morfesis is a Charleston resident. 

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