Was the recent dispute over funding West Ashley Economic Development Study really all about money? Charleston City Council recently approved a contract for the development of a master plan for West Ashley at a cost of $493,000 (with $50,000 of that pledged from Historic Charleston Foundation). Some may recall that the city planning department previously proposed hiring the same firm, Dover Kohl of Coral Gables, to create the plan at the price of $498,800 and City Council voted it down a few weeks earlier, reportedly, in part, because of cost. Aside from the price tag and a $5,800 difference, what changed?
There is no question that West Ashley still needs redevelopment. As Mt. Pleasant continues to grow at a rapid pace and downtown enjoys robust growth across the hotel and hospitality sectors, West Ashley has appeared to flatline from relative neglect. Once a thriving shopping destination, former marquee attractions like Citadel Mall now struggle to attract B and C class tenants, while other shopping centers, such as the former Ashley Plaza Mall, have disappeared and transformed altogether.
The rise of high-end shopping developments like Mt. Pleasant's Towne Centre and lower King Street stand in stark contrast to the exodus of premier shopping options in West Ashley. That's not to say that West Ashley has suffered a decline in traffic or population growth. With the explosion of residential development along the Glenn McConnell Expressway and the increase in available land for construction between highways 17 and 61, new residents and homeowners are still flocking to West Ashley. The diversification of bars, restaurants, and shops near Avondale also show that people are willing to patronize and invest in West Ashley establishments if business owners and restaurateurs create worthwhile establishments for people to spend their money.
A revitalization of West Ashley would focus on a redevelopment of the Citadel Mall area providing economic and tax incentives to encourage further desired development in this area of the city. Mayor John Tecklenburg made attention to West Ashley one of the keystones of his campaign as has West Ashley City Councilman Peter Shahid. City Council members Keith Waring and Bill Moody, who also represent parts of West Ashley, also have an interest in seeing that city resources are wisely directed towards areas effecting their constituents.
Why then all the fuss over a measly $5,000? It seems to me that development of West Ashley, a priority to which all could agree, carries considerable political reward for whomever is able to claim success in making the development happen. As Mayor Riley correctly deserves credit for the renaissance of the King-Calhoun corridor, city representatives and political officials correctly want to have input into how this area of the city develops. It stands to reason that city councilmen from this area will not simply hand the keys over to city staff so that a new administration can take credit for how the plan for West Ashley will be developed.
Part of Waring and Moody's objections to the previous proposal was that the West Ashley Revitalization Commission (a group of appointed community leaders and volunteers) was not more involved in the screening and recommendation of Dover Kohl. This initial power skirmish suggests that the redevelopment of West Ashley will have to be a collaborative effort, specifically involving West Ashley representatives and community volunteers. Waring and Moody's initial vote against the costlier proposal, in many ways, can be seen as a warning shot across the bow, to the extent that the mayor's office and city staff attempt to control the direction and management of the master plan. As with the contentious vote over the bicycle lane, which would potentially affect West Ashley traffic, council members are voicing their strong concerns even when they don't coincide with the mayor's stated goals.
Taking these considerations into account, the skirmish over the approval of the contract for the West Ashley master plan was not just about money. It was very much about elected representatives from West Ashley making sure that their concerns and the concerns of their constituents remain front and center as the redevelopment process moves forward. If the city happened to save an extra $5,000, that was a great corollary benefit, but the real message sent is that this is going to be a purposefully collaborative effort. If the end result is a better master plan for West Ashley, then the whole city stands to benefit.