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FEATURE ‌ Looking Beyond Old Buildings

Quality of life key to Historic Preservation Plan

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When talking about historic preservation, the conversation usually hinges on architecture, building heights, and density. But an interesting thing happened when San Francisco consultants Page & Turnbull went into the community to get input for the Charleston's new Historic Preservation Plan: the conversation evolved to include traffic, redevelopment incentives, and open space. While streetscaping is nice, it's not preserving anything ... at least not directly.

"We're talking about preservation with a small p," says Charles Chase, one of the consultants and a former City of Charleston architect. "It's about preserving quality of life."

The city's last preservation plan was completed in 1974 and doesn't address the city's 21st-century problems, including growing development in areas overlooked by that plan or not yet incorporated into the city, including the Neck and portions of James and Johns islands.

"Back in 1974, we were talking about the peninsula, and really the lower peninsula," says city preservationist Yvonne Fortenberry.

The consultants held three public forums last week to get community concerns.

• On Monday, more than 40 upper peninsula residents came out to tell city planners and consultants that revitalization is just as important as preservation for the region that's largely been an industrial wasteland. New zoning standards are expected to spur development and demolition is under way for the Magnolia property west of Interstate 26, expecting to turn much of the industrial black eye that currently welcomes Charleston's visitors into a modern hub of offices, stores, parks, and homes. Residents discussed concerns about preservation, but they were more focused on opportunities for revitalizing the community. After all, you can't preserve a corner store if you don't have one to begin with. Issues included financial incentives and the city's design and review process.

Improving the look of the Neck came up several times by community members.

"The appearance coming into the city needs to be attractive," said resident Henry Copeland, who referred to what currently welcomes visitors and residents as a "war zone."

• At Tuesday's West Ashley meeting, including residents of James and Johns islands and Cainhoy, traffic, no surprise, topped the list of concerns brought to the table by residents. Preserving rural character, especially on the islands, ran neck-and-neck with traffic as a chief issue. One suggestion, in bold and clear handwriting, posted by a resident on one of the provided bulletin boards, read: "Outlaw new subdivisions -- make 'em improve what we have."

Over 50 residents were in attendance at the workshop. Their recommendations to the consultants, posted on bulletin boards throughout the room, included "Affordable housing, environmental friendliness, educational facilities," "Just say no!! as often as possible," "Farm land preservation ordinance and incentives," and perhaps most telling, from a West Ashley resident, "There is a feeling that we are the 'forgotten children' in the structure of the city."

• Wednesday's meeting included more than 100 people traveling to the Calhoun Street library to discuss issues on the lower peninsula. Preservationists and developers are already sparring over projects downtown, including a new hotel on Marion Square. So it was no surprise that the traditional concerns about architecture and density reared their head. But even downtown residents worried over open space being gobbled up by construction, how too much traffic and too little parking are troubling residents, and even excess carriage use.

While some of these concerns may not make it into the Historic Preservation Plan, the consultants may offer up additions to companion plans that could work with the preservation study to insure that Charleston's quality of life is preserved.

One community that was largely absent from the public forums was the East Side neighborhood that in some ways straddles the redevelopment concerns of the upper peninsula and the development pressures of the lower peninsula. Chase said that the city and the consultants had reached out to the community to be involved in the forums, but that other community meetings may have conflicted with the preservation meetings.

Those residents who didn't get a chance to attend the meetings can still contribute suggestions or concerns through the city's website at www.ci.charleston.sc.us.

"We believe as consultants that we don't have the answers: you do," Chase said.

The consultants are expected to present a draft of the preservation plan during public meetings in August before handing the final document to the city later in the fall.

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