High-density development gathering steam, enemies in Mount Pleasant

Mount Pleasant residents (left to right) Gene Gowe, Mary Thomas, Howard Jaffe and Jane Thompson play cards Tuesday at Mount Pleasant's Stokes-Marshall Senior Center. All of them moved from other areas. "We didn't have any family here," said Mary Thomas who came from Ohio. "We just up and moved."

Gary Santos is at it again.

Town Council met Tuesday to review Mount Pleasant's comprehensive plan - a state-mandated planning document filled with terms like "stakeholders" and "traffic calming."

Which certainly needs to calm down in Mt. P.

So Santos took the opportunity to again question the town's new model of high-density development, the "gathering place" concept.

Santos speaks for a lot of residents in old Mount Pleasant who are unhappy with the town's most visible gathering place, The Boulevard, on Coleman. The apartment and retail complex stands 60 feet high and is built right up to the sidewalk.

It looks awfully big-city for a place that calls itself a "town."

"It looks like we're punishing the southern part of town, pushing more density down here and less up north," Santos said.

Some local officials think Santos is grandstanding. The decision has been made - this is the future, and it's the way things have to be.

They're right about that. As Paul Gawrych notes, Mount Pleasant is basically an island with a limited amount of space. And it's going to get more crowded because more people move to the promised land every day.

Mount Pleasant is simply dealing with the bane of being a very nice place to live.

But that doesn't mean Santos is wrong.

The city of Charleston is really high on the gathering place these days - about 55 feet high, at least on Maybank Highway.

Right now, developers are building the city's newest gathering place just a stone's throw from the intersection of Maybank and Folly Road.

Locals will tell you it's madness.

A gathering place looks really nice on artists' renderings: people walking along the sidewalk, biking along with their groceries. This type of development is supposed to curb traffic by encouraging people to walk or bike to the store, or to work.

But exactly where are you going to work on Maybank and walk to from this place? The Crab House?

"The gathering place is really a great idea for a downtown community," says George Tempel, a James Island resident who - along with his wife, Carol - has been critical of the gathering place. "How are they going to get these people to stay in the area?"

Well, even though there are some offices not too far from this gathering place, it's a tad optimistic to expect a lot of people to bike from the 'burbs to downtown, or walk along Maybank to the grocery store.

And everyone knows this. If this thing isn't going to contribute to what is already a traffic nightmare on Maybank, why does it need a six-deck parking garage?

As Santos pointed out, the problem with The Boulevard - besides its size - is that most of the apartments in it are well beyond the reach of anyone who could walk to work from there.

Sure, the complex includes 15 percent "workforce housing" - a nice way of saying "affordable" - but that means 85 percent of the places are probably not going to be filled with someone walking across the street to work.

So Mount Pleasant residents aren't crazy when they say the concept doesn't work.

At least not at the moment.

Mount Pleasant Town Council has been over this with residents a dozen or more times, and is not backing down.

As several council members noted earlier this week, it's hard to look at a 10-year plan just five years in and declare it unworkable.

Good point.

The fact is, Mount Pleasant is growing like a weed - so is James Island, and so is Summerville. Some inconvenience is unavoidable, and the gathering place is an idea that we may have to embrace, artists' renderings and all.

But Santos is right to point out that plopping a fancy, high-priced apartment complex into the middle of burger joints and Starbucks is not going to discourage traffic - it's going to make it worse, at least in the short term.

Now, part of Mount Pleasant's comprehensive plan is to attract more high-tech jobs to the Coleman Boulevard area, providing jobs for people who can live in a place like The Boulevard and possibly bike or walk to work.

That's why it's called a long-term plan.

But the early stages of several of these gathering places are doing little to instill confidence in the process, and Santos is probably sparing council much of the community's wrath by bringing it up himself so often.

After all, what he's really doing is giving voice to people who long for the way things used to be - and are not overly happy that their little slice of paradise has been discovered.

They know there is no other solution. They just want to vent about the high price of progress.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com