Poor zoning, communication

The Standard Apartment Homes rendering at the site on Maybank Highway just west of Folly Road on Thursday, January 2, 2013. (Wade Spees/File)

The city of Charleston’s “gathering place” zoning was supposed to be a solution to urban sprawl and auto dependency, but it instead has created new problems and intense controversy where it has been applied.

Public opinion finally forced a recapitulation and finally abandonment of the gathering place project by the Angel Oak on Johns Island. But though sentiment continues to run strong against the gathering place off Maybank Highway on James Island, more development is in the offing.

Critics have assailed the project now under construction as being out of character and scale with the surrounding neighborhoods, and say that it will create more congestion on an overcrowded road. And so it will.

While public outcry brought about some comparatively minor changes for The Standard, a 280-unit apartment complex with a six-story parking garage, it doesn’t appear to have made much difference in the next stage of the gathering place development.

Apparently, 341 additional apartments, an assisted living facility and another parking deck are planned.

The difficulty in getting information about the project, cited by Carol Jacobsen in a letter on this page, apparently extends even to City Council members.

Kathleen Wilson, whose district includes much of James Island (though not the gathering place parcel in question) says she hasn’t been adequately kept up to speed on plans for this project and others. Councilman Dudley Gregorie expressed similar concerns.

Ms. Wilson insists that notification practices have to be improved so that council is kept informed “pro-actively, not retroactively.”

“Council hasn’t been notified,” she said in an interview this week. “We catch this in the process and it’s harder to amend.”

As far as the latest project is concerned, Ms. Wilson said, “I’d like to see them start it over from scratch.”

And she insists the city doesn’t do a good job in notifying affected residents, especially those who don’t live within the city limits. Ms. Wilson says signs for public notification aren’t large enough and aren’t always given the kind of prominence that is required.

“We need to make sure the island knows what is about to come,” Councilman Gregorie said. He plans to hold a town hall meeting in a church near the gathering place to address the issues that continue to be raised with this project and other developments planned nearby. And he wants a detailed explanation from planning staff about the public notification process.

Mr. Gregorie points out that the gathering place zoning has been on the books since 2006, and that property owners have a general right to develop according to its guidelines. The Standard is in Mr. Gregorie’s district. Another controversial project nearby, Paw Paw Place, is in Councilman Bill Moody’s district.

Ms. Wilson says it’s clear that the gathering place zoning won’t deliver what was expected in terms of walkable communities with plenty of green space and greater access to public transportation.

“It’s morphed completely out of control,” she said.

Certainly, that’s a major criticism for City Council to consider. The discussion should have the full engagement of the planning department and the city administration. And the public must be kept in the loop.