Develop a productive dialogue on Coleman Boulevard future

The Boulevard apartments have changed the landscape on Mount Pleasant's Coleman Boulevard. (Wade Spees/File)

The debate now churning in Mount Pleasant over the Coleman Boulevard Revitalization Plan does not necessarily signal disunity. In fact, it is a critical public dialogue that can ultimately produce a better future for the town and its residents.

To arrive at positive solutions, it is important to identify the points of agreement. To begin with, Mount Pleasant residents understand that our region is facing tremendous growth pressure. Over the next 15 years, the Charleston metropolitan region's population is expected to increase by approximately 430,000 people-more people than today live in Charleston and Georgetown counties combined.

The most recent census revealed that the Charleston metro area ranked 12th out of 381 metro areas in the U.S. in population growth between 2010 and 2012. Given the town's excellent public education and proximity to jobs, many newcomers will choose to live in Mount Pleasant. Most importantly, in accommodating this inevitable growth, Mount Pleasant residents rightly expect the town to require and facilitate high quality development that preserves and enhances the town's quality of life. On these points there is no dispute.

Fortunately, for many years Mount Pleasant has acknowledged the benefits of quality development. The town's vision is to build and redevelop competitive and vibrant places.

This has not been the case throughout the region. The Glenn McConnell Parkway, west of the Ashley, is a prime example. The parkway is characterized by segregated uses-big box retail separated from business parks, separated from apartment complexes, separated farther still from single family homes. Seas of asphalt and franchise architecture flank the main artery. Cars, not people, dominate the landscape. The end result is an area bereft of sense of place or community.

Not only is this model of development visually uninspiring, it is expensive and inefficient. Far-flung development increases the cost of public services like fire, police, and sanitation. At the same time, because every trip must be made in a car, families are burdened with higher transportation costs.

In contrast to the sprawl model of development, Mount Pleasant offers an alternative in the Coleman Boulevard area known as the traditional town model. Its principles include increased residential and commercial densities, connected streets, sidewalks and bicycle paths. Businesses, residences, parks, and schools are blended together instead of separated, and are accessible by cars, buses, bicycles, and feet, thus reducing daily car trips. The Coleman Boulevard Revitalization Plan is not a silver bullet to the woes of sprawl, but it is a laudable attempt at implementing these worthy traditional neighborhood principles.

So if the Mount Pleasant community rejects the sprawl model for its future, offering the more efficient traditional town model instead, why the opposition to the Coleman Boulevard Plan?

The disagreement has come from people of good will who are, understandably, dissatisfied with the execution of the plan and have turned back to low density, segregated uses as the alternative. We respectfully assert that 50 years of increasing traffic congestion, of rising costs of public services, of environmental damage, and displacement of farms and forests tell us unequivocally that this approach is not the answer. There is another option - the improved implementation of the Coleman Boulevard Plan.

The execution of the plan to date does not meet the standards of the community. For example, The Boulevard, the most prominent project completed pursuant to the plan, has met with significant public criticism. Objections include: inconsistency and poor quality of the building material, the height and massing of the project, the poor quality public spaces within and around the project, and the lack of attractive landscaping.

From The Boulevard we have learned that buildings of such prominence and density demand a higher, more rigorous level of review. In great communities, details matter. Faux brick facades and metal siding won't cut it. Moreover, in some instances, we have learned that building heights may need to be reduced to better relate to existing structures. We know the plan is not perfect. In fact, we should never have expected it to be.

That said, the worst reaction to The Boulevard or any other individual project would be to conclude that because the details of a building are sub par that the entire Coleman Boulevard Plan and all of its benefits should be scuttled. The suggestion that the community revert to the failed development model reminiscent of Savannah Highway is not a tenable solution.

Coleman Boulevard should redevelop in a manner where children can safely bike and walk to school and locally owned businesses can be easily and safely patronized by pedestrians and motorists alike. The clear solution is to uphold these fundamental, agreed-upon principles and upgrade the plan to meet the residents' expectations for high-quality development.

Michelle Sinkler is special projects director of the Coastal Conservation League.