High hopes for Upper Peninsula

Charleston's Upper Peninsula Initiative aims to lay out a vision for development in the neighborhood. (Wade Spees/File)

Building each new floor of some future developments in Charleston’s Upper Peninsula could cost more than money if city planners get their way.

According to plans announced at a public meeting Wednesday, a new zoning ordinance would allow buildings up to ten stories along Morrison Drive in exchange for new parks, playgrounds, stormwater improvements and other public amenities. Each community resource would earn developers “points” that could be exchanged for additional floors.

That’s a smart way to balance growth with badly needed community improvements in a long-neglected part of Charleston that is beginning to boom with tech companies, restaurants and other new businesses.

It’s also a necessary measure to accommodate the tens of thousands of residents expected to move to Charleston over the next few years. Given the limited space available on the peninsula, and the already strained suburban boundaries of the Charleston metro area, building up makes sense.

And the Upper Peninsula is a great place for taller buildings.

For one thing, there’s a good bit of room. About 30 percent of the Upper Peninsula is currently undeveloped, which is a much larger portion of available land than in downtown Charleston. But it’s close enough to downtown Charleston to make it an attractive — and affordable — option.

Indeed, a dense residential community along Morrison Drive would allow more people to live on the edge of what is already the densest part of the Charleston area. That would facilitate walking, biking and public transportation rather than adding further to existing traffic problems.

It also would set the stage for future development of an even more effective public transportation network by concentrating new residential development along a primary north-south corridor.

But any plan to build up and revitalize the Upper Peninsula must also consider the familes who have called that area home for generations.

Downtown Charleston currently faces a serious shortage of affordable housing options, particularly for young working families and older people on fixed incomes. The city should encourage development that is designed for residents who can’t afford the luxury condos and premium renovations that have made much of the Lower Peninsula unaffordable.

And housing isn’t the only concern. Affordable commercial space is key to maintaining neighborhood businesses run by and for longtime residents.

City planners should also consider placing limits not just on building height, but also on width and breadth. After all, a four-story building that stretches across an entire city block can feel just as overpowering as a narrower ten-story structure. A city with such a strong architectural tradition deserves much better than an urban canyon of brick and concrete.

It also deserves more than gridlock, sprawl and a cultural, historic heart that is increasingly unaffordable and out of reach for longtime residents.

Good planning for the Upper Peninsula is key to this thriving city.