Plan for Upper Peninsula growth

Charleston's Upper Peninsula could see taller buildings if a new city zoning ordinance passes. (Wade Spees/File)

Fighting sprawl and preserving quality of life in a growing Charleston will require added density in areas well suited to that kind of development. Taller buildings, better street connectivity, mixed uses and other characteristics of denser communities mean residents spend less time in cars and have a reduced environmental impact.

But those benefits are only possible where dense developments are compatible with their surroundings, and at least two locations chosen for so-called “gathering place” projects in the Charleston area have rightly generated opposition. Indeed, the traffic situation on Maybank Highway alone should have precluded plans for nearly 600 new apartments on James Island.

Similarly, a plan to build a new 13-story development on the site of the old Sgt. Jasper apartment building on Broad Street has been strongly opposed by neighborhood associations and preservation groups.

In contrast, a proposal for taller and denser developments in the upper part of the Charleston peninsula enjoys nearly universal support.

Last month, the city Planning Commission unanimously approved a new zoning amendment that would create an Upper Peninsula District to the east of Interstate 26 and north of the Ravenel Bridge. On Tuesday, City Council will give the plan first reading.

Broadly, new developments in the Upper Peninsula District would be allowed taller maximum heights — up to 12 stories — as permitted by a special point system. Points are awarded for offering public benefits like green building design, workforce housing or bicycle and public transportation accommodations.

It’s an innovative idea to trade sustainable design elements and public amenities for extra stories. Critically, developments on properties under the jurisdiction of the Board of Architectural Review or the Design Review Board will still have to go through the normal approval process.

But if there’s any place in Charleston where taller buildings make sense, it’s the Upper Peninsula.

According to the ordinance before City Council, the district is “well suited for greater density and increased height due to its connectivity to major transportation routes … the expansive nature of its existing infrastructure and its relatively sparse population.” Indeed, the area is ripe for growth and revitalization.

Another critical component of the new zoning designation is the requirement that all buildings fronting primary streets provide an “active use” ground floor. That mandate discourages surface parking and should help build a more vibrant streetscape in one of the peninsula’s least pedestrian-friendly areas.

All new developments above a minimum size must also provide at least two different uses, meaning that most buildings will offer a mix of residential and commercial space.

Given the rising cost of housing in the Charleston area, it might be preferable to make workforce housing a requirement of new developments rather than part of the height incentive point system. And some sort of provision for low-cost commercial space could support homegrown small businesses threatened by high rents.

But those are minor quibbles with what is otherwise an overwhelmingly positive framework for growth in the Upper Peninsula.

As Charleston struggles with growth and the need for additional density, the Upper Peninsula District zoning ought to serve as a model. Previous efforts to encourage mixed-use “gathering places” have led to outsized developments in unsuitable suburban environments with inadequate road and transit systems to accommodate the added population.

But density can build a healthier, more attractive and more functional city with the right location and the right regulatory framework. With council approval of the new zoning ordinance, the Upper Peninsula District will have both.