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Opinion: The limits of growth in Charleston

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Several new apartment projects are expected to be completed this year in the Charleston region, adding about 2,500 new units. 

When our population has again doubled, when not a water supply remains unpolluted, when the traffic jams of tomorrow make today’s seem like memories of the open road ... when the air of the city can no longer be breathed and the countryside has vanished ... then perhaps, if we are young, we shall comprehend the lemming.

— Robert Ardrey, “The Social Contract”

Charleston is not the laid-back city it was some 60 years ago when the Navy sent a young lieutenant (jg) (that would be me) to the Holy City after an instructor’s tour at the New York State Maritime College in New York City. My wife and I loved New York — the theater, the arts, the excitement. We both hated Charleston. For about a week.

Later, Charleston always topped my preference list when it came time for new orders. I had five assignments here, two of them back-to-back. They included all three of my commands at sea. (Emmett Robinson later cast me as Captain Queeg in “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial” at the Dock Street Theatre. I do not count that as one of my commands.)

When I retired from the Navy, after 25 years of enlisted and commissioned service, I got a job at the Charleston papers, where I was (and still am) treated very well. I think the two finest jobs in the world are commanding a ship at sea, and being editor of a daily newspaper. (Don’t ask me which of the two I rank first. If you’re young enough, go find out for yourself.)

What was Charleston like 60 years ago? There was no I-26, no James Island connector, no huge medical complex north of Calhoun Street, no sewage treatment plant (the city’s liquid waste was pumped untreated into the Ashley River). The new Naval Hospital had not been built. (Many now wish it never had been.) The Footlight Players was the only theater group in town. Parking was not a headache, nor were meter maids forced to work late at night as they are now — a truly dumb idea, I think. (Did anyone ask restaurant owners and goers what they think of this?)

There were two daily newspapers — The Evening Post and The News and Courier. Frank Gilbreth Jr.’s “Doing the Charleston” was the most popular column in town. His nickname on the golf course was “Troublemaker,” which pretty much summarizes what the job description of successful opinion writers should be.

There was always a sense of “becoming” if you lived in Charleston in those days, a feeling that after almost 100 years this city stood on the cusp of reclaiming its deserved reputation as “Queen City of the South.” I think we likely now have reached that point. And from what I read in the papers, not everyone is pleased.

“Development” has become a dirty word for them, something destructive of the way things were when the world was young and so were they.

Here is the truth, however: Too many people have discovered how wonderful Charleston is, both as a place to visit and, for lucky ones, a place to make a new home in an old house. There is no practical way to change this. People “from off” are already here or are coming. Sorry — you cannot build a wall to keep them out. And there is only so much land to build on here.

Charleston is a peninsula defined by two rivers, the Ashley and the Cooper. In local parlance, this is where the rivers come together to form the Atlantic Ocean. Growth in a northerly direction is curtailed by the unwise incorporation, many years ago, of North Charleston. Growth to the east, across the Cooper, is similarly blocked by Mount Pleasant. To the west, over the Ashley, it’s limited by small, inefficient municipalities established on Charleston’s rim.

How much simpler it would have been to manage growth in this part of the Lowcountry if, early on, all these “bedroom communities” had annexed into a Greater Charleston. Think of the clout we’d have had in Columbia, and even in Washington.

Also complicating the management of growth in this city we love is our determination to preserve the heritage we enjoy in our old and historic buildings. There are not as many of these as one might think, but those that survived Civil War bombardment, great fires, earthquake, hurricanes and floods do require and deserve protection. Indeed, our low-level city, our mansions, our churches, our quaint and authentic streets are what have enticed so many to come and live here.

Change does not have to be destructive. It does not have to make this city by the sea affordable only to the very rich. Our destiny does not have to be Disneyland. There does not have to be a hotel on every street corner. Working people can still make a life here.

R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.

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