A Brawl over Sprawl
Maybank Development gains support from City Planner but not from Design and Review Board
By Charlie Morrison
Earlier this month, the members of the City of Charleston’s Design and Review Board (DRB) got their first taste of a new proposal to develop the 22-acre tract behind the Piggly Wiggly and the James Island Shopping Center on the corner of Maybank Highway and Folly Road. Property owner JLW Maybank II (a subsidiary of J.L. Woode, Inc.) and developer Woodfield Investments submitted proposal for the projected project, a multi-use apartment complex, that was heard at the Nov. 8 meeting of the DRB. And while the DRB roundly rejected the current proposal, citing a number of problems with the submitted application and the project itself, the project is still alive and kicking.
The key to the proposal is that the property itself was zoned as a “Gathering Place,” back in 2007 in accordance with the City’s McCleod Village Plan and their Century V Comprehensive Plan’s recommendations for this area of James Island.
The high-density, mixed-use classification according to City of Charleston Planning and Neighborhood Director Christopher Morgan, would be “extremely walkable, and some of the densest development, that would promote living, working, and shopping in the same general area, and would lessen car dependency,” says Morgan. “You need pockets of density located in very specialized places so that you don’t have as much sprawl and this is an ideal location for that.”
“We think this is a fantastic project for James Island, which will promote walkability, walking neighborhoods, improved access to transit, and reduce sprawl,” continues Moran. “We met with hundreds of James Islanders (in 2002, as part of the McLeod Village Plan discussions) who said they wanted those types of things.
“If we are to grow in a smarter, more sustainable manner, developments like this are key. If developments like these are beaten down, all that our community will be left with is sprawl, which will not serve us well moving into the future,” says Morgan.
“Traffic will have to be studied, and a new traffic signal at Maybank and Fleming may be warranted. This area was chosen for GP zoning because it has the ability to handle heavier traffic and is on key transit routes,” he continues.
Traffic aside, the City’s Comprehensive Plan calls for a “Gathering Place,” the City Planning Commission recommended it, and City Council, in 2007, approved of the recommendation, the DRB stands as the last hurdle for developers Woodside Investments. And while the DRB cited a number of problems with the project itself and the manner in which it was presented.
Initially ruffling the feathers of first, City staffers and then, the DRB was the fact that the developer missed a mandatory meeting with City design staffers, a meeting that typically precedes any presentation to the DRB. Instead, the project went straight to the Board, which amassed a litany of the concerns over the it’s overall use of elevation, a number of inaccuracies with the design plan itself, and the project’s relationship with Maybank Highway.
“It’s going to be different,” admitted landscape architect and design engineer Bill Eubanks of Urban Edge Studio and who’s been contracted to work on the project. “The scale of a building like this I think, does take some getting used to … and there’s certainly not anything on Maybank Highway like that,” said Eubanks.
“When it’s out there on its own, that’s going to be one thing, but when the rest of that 22 acres fills in with offices and shops, and you get those new streets in there it’s going to take on a whole new feel than just this one project sitting there by itself,” said Eubanks. “It’s really going to feel like a place that’s very walkable.”
Interestingly enough, though it’s 22 acres that developers, along with Eubanks are excited to see filled in, the “Gathering Place” zoning classification is typically reserved for properties exceeding 80 acres. This project meets the City’s criteria based on the idea that somewhere down the line, the James Island Shopping Center, along with the Cross Creek Center that houses the new Roper facility would be redeveloped and incorporated into the zoning, bring the total acreage of the facility to more than the established minimum of 80 acres.
For any project of this scale to gain traction on James Island, it has to be palatable to area residents. The key in selling the plan to a wary public is the idea of sprawl versus density. The project would make the complex one of the Holy City’s most densely populated areas. Developers argue, that despite the density of the proposed property, the fact that it’ll be four stories tall translates to a smaller footprint in which to house hundreds, a benefit specific to the “Gathering Place” zoning classification.
“We have in the neighborhood of 300 units in this apartment complex, you could take those units and sprawl them out on James Island and Johns Island, and the traffic impact from that would be far worse than concentrating them at this one place,” says Eubanks. “The people who live on James Island, they do keep a really good job of tracking what development is happening on James Island, and they do what they can to protect the environment, and save trees, which I think is an admirable thing to do. On this particular project, over the course of the project, there are a lot of trees that are going to come down.”
And while trees will fall should the project go forward, Eubanks cites cooperation from both island-based preservation groups and the Coastal Conservation League (CCL) as evidence that the group has made mitigating the impact of the project on the surrounding environment a priority. Eubanks specifically credits the CCL’s Katie Zimmerman for her efforts at bridging the gap between developers, preservationist groups and the City.
“I think she has done a fantastic job to balance and be empathetic to the concerns of the people who live on James Island while at the same time supporting the concept of the gathering place district,” said Eubanks. “The CCL was one of the early, early proponents of the gathering place zoning classification … they believe in that concept. At the same time, they want James Islands to feel like they’re being heard.”
The next opportunity for James Islanders to continue to be heard on the issue could be as soon as Thursday, Dec. 13, when the DRB next meets, but that depends on the developer’s ability to accommodate the Boards recommendations into their existing plan in a timely fashion. It’s possible the issue won’t be vetted until next year. Either way, one thing’s for sure, when developers next present a re-vamped plan to the DRB James Island’s residents will be on hand to hear it
The next meeting of the City of Charleston’s Design and Review Board will be on Thursday, Dec. 13, at 5 p.m. For more information on, see the City’s informational website at www.charlestoncity.info. The property owner, JL Woode, Inc., can be found at www.jlwoode.com.