The Advocate

By Jay Williams, Jr.

 

More change is coming to Charleston. But many residents say there’s no plan to manage it, that the existing rules aren’t being enforced and that the city has reached — or passed — the tipping point from being a livable, working small city to a bustling tourist town.

How do we know? Because the Preservation Society of Charleston asked its members and subscribers in an open online survey last November.

The more than 200 respondents were thoughtful, knowledgeable and passionate. When more than 70 percent of them volunteered additional comments, they didn’t hold back. Many comments addressed specific issues and concerns, some offered innovative solutions, a few articulated a vision for the city — and more than a few were bluntly critical of the action or inaction of city officials, especially Charleston City Council. There was strong consensus on all issues but one.

The Preservation Society asked the survey respondents to rank a series of questions from 1 through 5, with 5 representing “critically important” and 1, “don’t agree, don’t do it.” As the results were so pointed, we’re able to represent the results by combining only the strongest positive responses, those checked “critically important” or “important.”

Here are Charleston’s Top 10 issues, increasing in importance. We’ve added our own notations to some of them:

Number ten: Essential businesses — 56 percent thought it was “critically important” or “important” to “offer large tax breaks for essential businesses like grocery stores, building supply stores, etc. to help ensure more commercial variety.” That’s a high positive response considering the inclusion of the word “large” in the question.

Number nine: Short-Term Rentals – 62 percent strongly favor “enforcing current restrictions on Airbnb and other short-term rentals,” but 27 percent strongly favor easing restrictions on short-term rentals, illustrating the divergent views about this growing issue.

Number eight: West Ashley — 62 percent strongly favor “ensuring the revitalization of West Ashley.” Given that the majority of the survey respondents live on the peninsula, Mt. Pleasant and elsewhere, this reflects strong support. Unfortunately, certain city councilmembers prevented the appointment of the top-shelf urban architects that a special commission studied and recommended.

Number seven: CARTA — 62 percent strongly support “capital investment for CARTA” and 66 percent were strongly in favor of increasing “CARTA routes and ridership.” The new busses debuting downtown are a much needed, appreciated first step, but transportation surveys elsewhere sometimes have indicated support for mass transit — in the hope that others will use it. 

Number six: Cruise ships — 76 percent strongly favor putting “enforceable, legal restrictions on the number of cruise ship passengers visiting Charleston.” And 70 percent think it’s “important” or “very important” to “order a study to find a cruise terminal location away from downtown.”

Number five: Flooding — 82 percent strongly favor ordering “a study of preventative measures that could reduce flooding.”

Number four: New hotels — 84 percent strongly favor “a one-year moratorium on new hotel construction,” the very measure the mayor proposed and was blocked by a few members of city council last year. Notably, 80 percent strongly favor enforcing the 50-room cap for new hotels, commenting “we already have enough large ones” and 72 percent want “to require new hotels to provide shuttle service from the airport to downtown to reduce rental car traffic.”

Number three: A city-wide traffic study — 88 percent want to “conduct a city-wide traffic study.” Correspondingly, 79 percent of the respondents strongly favor “making the ‘Lowline,’ an abandoned rail line between King and Meeting that runs up along I-26, a light rail service with low-cost parking garages off I-26 for tourists and commuters to reduce downtown vehicle traffic.” Last year, the mayor and city council shifted the $350,000 in funding for this overdue traffic study to West Ashley revitalization. The sizeable support for a “Lowline light rail” is astonishing, as few others have proposed this initiative as a way to reduce large amounts of peninsula traffic.

Number two: Planning Commission and BAR — 95 percent want to “maintain a strong planning commission,” and 93 percent strongly favor the same protection for the BAR. Councilmembers Keith Waring and Bill Moody’s successful efforts to pack and weaken the planning commission contradict this sentiment.

Number one: Livability — 96 percent strongly favor “maintaining Charleston as a living city,” defending its character and quality of life for residents. Another 88 percent strongly believe that a livable city must include a mix of residential and commercial uses, which relates to question number ten. The majority of the comments received in the study reflected grave concerns about livability and quality of life issues.

One could criticize this study; the plurality of respondents come from the peninsula, there were only 200 or so in the study and they are mostly Preservation Society members. However, that’s also the key to its significance. These are the people who are most aware of the issues, are geographically closest to the problems facing Charleston, are most likely to have property and investments downtown and manage the effects of tourism, traffic, parking and other issues daily.

It could be argued that these survey takers have the most to lose if Charleston continues to change without a plan or effective safeguards for its continued viability. It cannot be disputed, after reading the responses, that they’re knowledgeable about the problems, have reasonable suggestions for addressing them — and know who’s responsible for standing in the way of solving them.

Many of Charleston’s problems have been unaddressed for years, so the current administration and city council hardly deserve all the blame for inaction. But in 2017, it’s now or never. A booming economy and development pressures are overwhelming Charleston’s anemic ordinances, weakened boards and commissions and compromised planning.

All residents, from those working in City Hall to those living in West Ashley and Daniel Island, should study these concerns. Then we need to respond as citizens of one great city, not as overseers of parochial fiefdoms.

If peninsular Charleston is overdeveloped and overrun and its charm and history are erased, everyone loses.

 

Jay Williams, Jr. arrived in Charleston in 2001 to escape the cold and relax in the warmth of a better culture and climate. This all worked well until May of 2011 when he attended a cruise terminal discussion at Physicians Hall.

 

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Now we’d like Your Opinion. Please take a new Preservation Society Survey online by going to this link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/LKCKWMY

 

We’ll publish the results in the next Mercury.

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