Several times over the past couple of years, people have challenged me to "write something positive" about either the world, people, or just the Charleston area. While that's normally not something my brain is wired to do, you should mark today on your calendar because I am about to pass on some fairly good news.
According to the anti-sprawl advocacy group Smart Growth America, the Charleston-North Charleston metropolitan area is the 123rd most compact area out of a total of 221 metro areas across the U.S. We're less dense than Savannah, but more compact than Asheville.
OK, I may have misled you. My news wasn't exactly good, but it wasn't exactly bad. We're pretty much average when it comes to population density. Then again, we aren't Atlanta, which was second from the bottom on the list. Of course, one of the primary reasons we aren't Atlanta is because we're blessed (or cursed, depending on who you ask) with a geography that prevents rampant sprawl.
For the City Paper's end of 2013 "What If..." issue, I asked "What If Charleston Had Built Up Instead of Out?" and imagined an even more constricted Holy City without the ability to move west of the Ashley or much further north than it was able to before North Charleston incorporated. I could have written a similar piece about Mt. Pleasant, whose almost limitless growth up the Highway 17 corridor between the Cooper River and Awendaw is where I would place most of the blame for our metro area's "average" score in the sprawl study.
Which brings us to the "problems" of growth and change in the Charleston area. Much is made about these problems and how we should face them, and, well, part of the problem is that our leaders seems to have simply taken a time-out for the last 30 or 40 years and not faced up to our growing woes. The growth in our towns is not an overnight phenomenon. It has been happening steadily since the 1980s. Instead of managing that growth, our leaders have allowed it to run wild; you might even call it malignant. And only now do we find our respective governing bodies scrambling to seek out ways to contain the beasts they themselves created.
Those who say that our municipalities simply need better leaders are not only wrong, but they're late to the game. A new mind-set was needed ages ago when decisions about density, roads, and schools were first made. As I pointed out in a previous column, as far back as 1977 analysts hoped that solutions to the area's transportation woes would come in the form of better public transportation and workplaces cooperating to stagger opening and closing times in order to lessen the strain on the area's roadways. Those ideas died on the vine while the "easy" solution of widening lanes took root. Unfortunately, lane widening doesn't lead to less congested roads in the long run. One has only to sit in traffic on Interstate 26 for a few minutes on any given day to realize that.
In Mt. Pleasant, leadership has finally discovered there's simply nowhere else for the town to sprawl out to. Realizing Mt. Pleasant cannot spread any further out and that the only way is up, the town's leaders apparently decided that its zoning laws could simply be rewritten when it suited them in order to get more density, even if it meant destroying Mt. P's entirely mythical small-town charm. Developers, after all, don't give a damn if they destroy 1,000 acres or 1/10th of one, so long as they make money.
Charleston, on the other hand, continues to rack up accolades as the world's best city for attracting the attention of magazines who give out meaningless awards, while downtown chokes daily on the increased presence of the very people who have the disposable income to visit the fair city because of its fabled niceness/charm/history/flavor-of-the-month status. Thanks to a blind devotion to the past in the form of the Board of Architectural Review, not much is done to work out Charleston's congestion problems. Not so in New York City, where city officials have found that completely redesigning many of its streets and allowing for 31 miles of protected bike lanes and special turn lanes actually speeds traffic along, even though car lanes lose a few feet of space in the process.
While Charleston's downtown suffered through a period of urban blight in the early days of the Riley era, as malls sucked shoppers out of downtown shopping areas and into the suburbs and surrounding areas, the solution our city leaders have employed to bring people back to the peninsula is now showing the effects of being ill-conceived, poorly executed, and wildly mismanaged. Well, mismanaged is probably a misnomer since it appears there was no management at all when it comes to the explosion of food and beverage destinations on Upper King.
The city's response to its sudden realization that there are a lot of bars on King Street now is a textbook example of reactionary leadership: slap together some more ill-conceived ordinances, force them through council, let the people gripe for a few months, then do some end-runs around the complaints, subtly change the wording of the ordinance, and enact some of it through policy changes. Particularly galling is what city planner Tim Keane told City Council and the citizens of the Holy City last month, namely that Charleston "really feels like we should not" have an entertainment district. That this comes after a decade of courting exactly those kinds of businesses into downtown in an effort to revitalize Upper King is amazing.
In fact, what Keane, and the mayor, and the chief of police are telling the food and beverage industry essentially boils down to is this: "Thanks for helping us get rid of the poor and the minorities on the peninsula. Now please kindly step aside yourselves so we can get some respectable businesses up in here."
That isn't city planning, that's flat-out city shystering.