Charleston Planning Commission takes up West Ashley Master Plan

Charleston Planning Commission takes up West Ashley Master Plan
January 10 21:43 2018 Print This Article

The West Ashley Revitalization Commission presented the draft version of the West Ashley Master Plan to the Charleston Planning Commission Wednesday at The Schoolhouse, a former school turned into an office complex on Magnolia Road. The plan addresses land use, transportation, drainage, housing and economic development. The Planning Commission meeting is Wednesday, January 17 at 5 pm at the Gaillard Center office complex, 2 George Street downtown.

The master plan was facilitated by the urban planning consulting group Dover Kohl, known for its New Urbanism philosophy.  New Urbanism encourages the development of high-density apartment complexes and large expenditures on bicycle and pedestrian paths and mass transportation infrastructure.  The planning process included 66 public meetings and four regional workshops with more than 600 participants.  More than 150 technical experts were brought in to provide input.  Here are details in the plan’s five categories:

Land use.  The plan calls for high-density development on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard, Savannah Highway, St. Andrews Boulevard and West Ashley Circle.  The drawings in the plan show five and six-story buildings located close to the street, with few parking spaces.  There is an interesting drawing showing the redevelopment of Church Creek Plaza, which has been vacant for more than a decade.  It features community gathering places and green space with no area for parking.  It provides for public access to Church Creek.  Street-scaping is a common design tool with tree-lined streets and landscaped medians.

Transportation.  The New Urbanism philosophy favors “non-vehicular” transportation.  It calls for painted crosswalks to make it easier for people to cross busy roads on foot.  There is also a drawing showing shuttle bus routes looping around West Ashley.  Census data shows that 84% of West Ashley workers commute outside of the area.  West Ashley’s population is estimated at 72,000 and the jobs total in the region is about 30,000, indicating that a lot of workers in the area commute from elsewhere.  There are drawings showing bicycle and pedestrian paths winding throughout the region.  Recent bicycle path projects have cost nearly $4 Million per mile.  The plan reflects the desire of most workshop participants to complete I-526 to relieve congestion on Savannah Highway, Bees Ferry Road and other traffic arteries.  City Councilman Marvin Wagner expressed concern that high-density development conflicts with the goal of easing traffic congestion, since 96% of West Ashley residents use car travel as their primary form of transportation.

Drainage.  The plan addresses the Church Creek Drainage Basin Study, which was completed in November but has not yet been published.  It calls for a number of strategies, including retrofitting parks with absorbent plants, retrofitting parking lots, planting more trees and building retention ponds.  Flooding has been a major problem in West Ashley since 2015.

Housing.  The plan contains several caveats calling for the preservation of existing neighborhoods, which mostly feature single-family dwellings.  The new development drawings (and retrofit designs) all show multi-story apartment complexes.  During the public comment period, West Ashley residents Sheri Irwin and Nicole Claibourn both expressed concerns over high-density development and the potential seizure of property through eminent domain, which the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reserves for public use, like roads and bridges, not apartment complexes or retail development.  Claibourn said, “Memories are long when you mess with people’s property.  Elections aren’t too far off.”

Economic development.  A big piece in the study involves re-configuring Citadel Mall.  The first draft of the master plan showed the mall with no parking spaces.  The latest draft shows few parking spaces on either side of Orleans Road.  Principal owner Richard Davis has leased the former JC Penney space to MUSC for an out-patient clinic.  Among the main reasons for the development is an abundance of free parking.  Davis also has plans to build an Event Center between Belk and Dillard’s, which could attract thousands of visitors each weekend for competitive sports tournaments like baseball, volleyball, cheerleading and dance.  People would travel by car or van from hundreds of miles away to participate in such events and create more foot traffic in the mall.  The plan also calls for building more office space in the area and streamlining and clarifying the permitting process for new businesses.

If the Charleston Planning Commission approves the draft master plan next week, Charleston City Council could vote on the first of three readings at its February 13 meeting.  The West Ashley Revitalization Commission is tasked with making implementation recommendations after the master plan is approved.