Just as the headlines began to peak about North Charleston's status as one of the nation's most dangerous cities, so did the news about a pair of eco-friendly new neighborhoods smack dab in the heart of old North Chuck. The I'On Group announced Mixson, a dense, mixed-use, LEED-certified community between Park Circle and I-26. Just across Montague Avenue, the city of North Charleston partnered with the Noisette Company to found Oak Terrace Preserve, a neighborhood of EarthCraft-certified homes on small lots.
Oak Terrace has since prospered, with 61 homes built and occupied, and only one recently completed house yet unsold. Mixson, however, looks like a quickly abandoned attempt to build a Lowcountry Disneyland. Its cobblestoned alleyways wind between empty townhouses, painted brightly like a strange hybrid of old Europe and Rainbow Row. Of the 18 units constructed in phase one, only six are occupied. The mostly three-story buildings are huddled together in the middle of a huge field; Mixson's initial plan calls for 950 homes spread over 44 acres.
The few folks who are living at Mixson don't seem to mind. They've got a vast plot of open land to run their dogs, and the handful of mostly singles have formed a tight-knit community, with plans for yoga and cookouts at the neighborhood's picnic pavilion this spring.
But it's a far cry from Oak Terrace, where each evening brings a gaggle of parents walking their children and dogs around the carefully manicured sidewalks. Many of the houses border within eight feet of their neighbor, so friendly Truman Show-like banter from porch to porch is commonplace.
Ben Leigh, a programs manager with The Sustainability Institute, bought his house in Oak Terrace in 2007. He was sold on the energy efficiency of the homes, the affordable pricing, and neighborhood-wide initiatives like bioswales that collect rainwater runoff and filter pollutants into the earth before water reaches the nearby tidal creek.
"I had a choice between a house built 30 years ago or a brand new house that I knew was built to EarthCraft standards, that would be energy efficient, have good indoor air quality, and was new enough that I probably wouldn't have any problems, so it seemed like a logical choice," says Leigh.
Leigh's neighbors, Paul Wilczynski and Joan Brasier, moved to Oak Terrace from Boston in 2008. They estimate that they've saved $6,000 in gas and electric bills thanks to their home's efficiency. Joan, a gardener, appreciates that the community encourages native plants over grass, and Paul says he met more neighbors in his first week at Oak Terrace than in 10 years in Boston.
Oak Terrace is owned by the city of North Charleston and was administered by Noisette until recently, when project leader Elias Deeb left to form his own company, Cedrus. Deeb says that sales in 2009 were about two-thirds of what they'd hoped for prior to the recession, but that the master plan for 374 homes is unchanged. Oak Terrace sets building standards for their houses, then allows independent construction companies to bid for contracts.
Mixson, on the other hand, is owned by a singular group of investors, and managed by the I'On Group. Last year, I'On closed their storefront office on Montague Avenue in Park Circle's business district, handing over sales of the existing units to Rehava, an online real estate store.
I'On founder and president Vince Graham says that Mixson's still bullish on the future, but is currently taking a hiatus to wait on the market to improve.
"With this concept, it requires a certain critical mass of homes and neighbors before it can really get traction," says Graham. "We started as the market was headed down."
For now, says Graham, they're hitting the "pause button." In the meantime, a dozen gold LEED-certified units ranging from $123,000 to $325,000 sit vacant, waiting for a buyer.
"It's got tremendous potential," says Graham. "This is the largest collection of (gold rated homes) in the state. We're positioning it for the long run."
Mixson resident Thea Anderson understands that the public might have trouble wrapping their brain around the "new urbanist design," with its vertical buildings, dense design, and lack of yards and garages. But she sees it as the smart growth of the future.
Ultimately, both Mixson and Oak Terrace share the same goals and serve the same core market: young and environmentally-conscious first-time homebuyers seeking a house that fits the eco-friendly lifestyle they practice. Oak Terrace's success led to the Home Depot Foundation honoring North Charleston with the Award of Excellence for Sustainable Community Development.
But give Mixson some time. With Park Circle growing as the hub of ecological Charlestonians, it won't take long for Oak Terrace's fortunes to trickle down the street. After being filtered in a bioswale, of course.