Summerville’s proposal for an updated unified development ordinance — the document that guides growth in the town — gets so many things right.
It sets high standards for livable, attractive neighborhoods and mixed-use development that fits with its small town aesthetic.
It de-emphasizes car dependency and requires substantial amenities for pedestrians and bicyclists.
It envisions lots of high quality green space, tree preservation and effective stormwater management.
But according to a recent report by Joy Bonala in the Summerville Journal Scene, one rule in particular has sparked an outsize amount of controversy during recent workshops to review the updated UDO. It shouldn’t undermine what is otherwise an excellent planning document.
At a recent hearing on the updated ordinance, which hasn’t taken effect, several Town Council members raised concerns about a requirement that new buildings in a portion of downtown Summerville be a minimum of two stories tall.
The idea is to make downtown more mixed-use by allowing people to live on the second or third floors of buildings, which would cut down on the need for car trips to and from the center of Summerville and provide options for residents seeking an alternative to traditional suburbia.
In general, that’s a very smart proposal. Summerville has several blocks in its downtown that aren’t being used to their fullest potential and would be perfect for something more along the lines of the small town “Main Street” vibe that people already associate with historic Summerville.
Still, some council members are right to worry that requiring a minimum of two stories might be too much micromanaging or lead to unintended consequences.
Besides, there are perfectly charming buildings in or near Summerville’s downtown that are one story, so it’s not necessarily a question of architectural compatibility.
A more functional downtown might be better facilitated by simply asking that new developments contain a residential component and clearing away any red tape that would hamper that mixture of uses, rather than mandating a specific configuration.
The updated UDO specifically drops any requirements for off-street parking in downtown, for example, which would help encourage a more walkable, people-friendly community. It would also make mixed-use development more economically feasible by cutting back on the lot space needed for car storage.
Not very many Charleston-area communities still have substantial downtown areas built before the era of car-focused development, so Summerville has a big opportunity to lead in creating a more sustainable, livable town center that fits with its broader aesthetic.
Town leaders ought to be wary of taking too heavy-handed of an approach toward achieving that goal, however. If Summerville hasn’t always grown in an optimal way as it expanded to 50,000 residents in recent years, the root causes of flawed development will need to be addressed — with or without tighter rules in place.
But it’s encouraging to see so many forward-thinking proposals on the table in Summerville. Other local leaders should take note.