The Great Recession is in the rearview mirror. Cranes punctuate Charleston's picturesque skyline as developers build thousands of hotel rooms and apartments. Old buildings make way for new. The College of Charleston's footprint grows larger and larger. Cruise ships idle in the harbor, ready to pump 3,000 tourists onto our narrow and already congested sidewalks and roadways. Streets flood. When the latest festival rolls into town, traffic stands still, clogging our throughways. Housing costs climb higher and higher. Drunks overrun Upper King Street.
But Charleston life rolls on, her residents gritting their teeth behind friendly smiles, taking it in stride until they can't take it anymore.
The Preservation Society of Charleston (PSC) is well versed in the concerns of its traditional audience, the affluent homeowners of the historic district who worry about preserving architecture and reigning in tourism, but it's hoping to reach other residents and address those bigger concerns of livability that encompass everybody who lives and works here.
"We want to bring people together to talk about solutions that are working to make our historic neighborhoods even better," says Evan Thompson, the executive director of the PSC (who also writes the History Attic column for the City Paper. See p. 12).
Preserving Charleston is about more than saving old buildings for the PSC these days.
On the bright side, Charleston remains a livable city. It's walkable, clean, engaging, convenient, relatively safe. The pros of living here still outweigh the cons. But for how long? The city stands at the proverbial fork in the road. One way leads to an oversaturated tourist market where residents' needs are ignored as business profits become the driving force behind public policies and urban design decisions. The other way preserves the delicate balance that a livable city demands.
As Charleston basks in the media's international attention, and more and more people flock to town, the PSC is looking to start a new conversation that will influence the path Charleston heads down — before it's too late.
In January, the PSC will host the first-ever Livability Summit in Charleston. The one-day event will be free and open to the public, with strategically chosen topics and speakers.
Thompson sees it as a great opportunity to hear new voices, ones that are different from those that regularly show up at community forums and meetings. "What we want to do is have an opportunity to pull people together from the peninsula to spotlight what we think are great ideas and creative solutions to problems facing downtown and the quality of life, from historic neighborhoods all the way to the Neck," he says.
The PSC is in the process of hiring a nationally respected market research and consulting firm based in Charleston to carry out a livability survey that will be sent to 16,000 residences and businesses in mid-September. Topics will range from traffic and parking to affordability, tourism, and government services. The PSC is hoping to cull a sample that represents the totality of life on the peninsula, from downtown business owners who live off the peninsula to renters who reside here during the school year to everyone in between.
"The survey will be an annual thing," says Thompson. "We'll take everyone's temperature this year, and then see how they're feeling next year. It will also help us understand and shape our advocacy, in meeting our mission and addressing the needs of the community in different areas."
The results will also be used to help plan and direct the Livability Summit. Thompson says they are looking to address the topics by finding speakers who are already working on solutions.
"We don't want to just have this one day and then let it dissipate," says Thompson. "We plan to develop a community livability agenda and bring together these ideas, articulate them, and then move forward and see some progress. The livability agenda would create a roadmap for the implementation of ideas that don't require the government or organizations to get behind, but are ideas that other residents can pick up and run with."
Ultimately, the goal for the summit is to engage residents, inspire fresh ideas for action, and craft a collective vision for the future.
Thompson anticipates the January summit will be just the beginning of a vigorous new conversation.