Not to spoil anyone's secret spots, but there are only a few places left on James Island where you can really slip into the woods and get away from it all. Apart from an undeveloped peninsula or two off Fort Johnson Road and the still-rural stretches of Grimball Road, the island that Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. fights so dearly to rein into the City of Charleston has largely been stripped of its forests and farms, replaced with one suburban street after another.
In the heart of James Island's busiest corridor, just behind the Piggly Wiggly at the intersection of Maybank Highway and Folly Road, lies the most unexpected of escapes. Stretching over 22 acres, the tract of land between the James Island Shopping Center and Fleming Road features 107 grand trees (defined as being 24 inches or more in diameter at breast height), including massive pines and stately live oaks. Birds are abundant, humming between the canopy and a sizeable lake that the property backs up to. Walking into the lot's wide central clearing invokes a "How in the world is this still here?" kind of moment that's increasingly rare.
The parcel is private property, owned by real estate investment company J.L. Woode, so setting up camp and cooking s'mores in the midst of these suburban woods wouldn't be wise. Still, there are bike tracks and beer cans offering evidence that neighbhorhood children and adults alike have used the wooded tract as a place to roam.
However, all of that will change if a 300-to-350-unit apartment complex continues to navigate the approval process. Spearheaded by Atlanta-based developer the Residential Group and local landscape architects Urban Edge Studios (a division of Seamon Whiteside, the firm that designed Mt. Pleasant's I'On, Towne Centre, and the Belle Hall Shopping Center), the project follows the guidelines of the plot's "gathering place" zoning, which calls for a compact, walkable cluster of mixed-use buildings with open and protected land.
That designation was adopted over a decade ago, within the city's comprehensive plan setting an urban growth boundary. A 2002 public charrette for the area around the Maybank/Folly intersection, dubbed McLeod Village, gathered public input about the site, says Tim Keane, the City of Charleston's director of planning, preservation, and sustainability. The latest Phase 1 plan for the property includes only six of the 22 acres (the rest is still for sale by J.L. Woode). A four-story apartment building would sit less than 20 feet from Maybank Highway (not unlike the placement of the restaurant J. Paul'z, just 100 yards away), albeit with a wider sidewalk than what currently exists. As an in-fill project, surrounded by existing development, the Maybank site fits the bill for a high-density endeavor, explains Keane, adding that would-be builders on other parts of James Island (including Grimball Road) have been consistently turned down in favor of keeping outlying areas more rural.
"We encourage more density in places where you have infrastructure and existing walkable access to services, work places, and bicycle routes," Keane says. "We think it's the right location, in general, for the plan, and the right plan for the property."
Apart from the McLeod Village area, the only other James Island location where the city has zoned for high-density projects is the intersection of Fort Johnson and Folly roads, where a Food Lion and Gold's Gym currently dominate the landscape. Keane sees a "gathering place" community as a first step in revitalizing an area now dominated by cars.
"Maybank is a wide, five-lane highway, so that is a big gash through the area. The positive side of that is that it gives you a lot of room to work with things like additional landscaping and bike lanes, and for it to become a really beautiful street," Keane says. "This stretch of road has that kind of opportunity."
On Dec. 7, the Residential Group received approval from the Board of Zoning Appeals to cut down 60 grand trees, and while the Coastal Conservation League does not oppose the project, project manager Katie Zimmerman says they are fearful that without oversight and the public weighing in, James Island could end up with another shopping center like the one next door.
"We like gathering places, and we do think that location is perfectly appropriate for that type of development," Zimmerman says. "We're concerned that it won't be worth giving up 60 grand trees to end up with another strip mall, which is not what a gathering place is supposed to be."
Zimmerman acknowledges that many of the trees slated for removal are already dying, but she also says the development's initial plans have been "sketchy" and are far from finalized.
Zimmerman praises Seamon Whiteside project leader Bill Eubanks' work (he spearheaded the I'On project), expressing confidence that with him at the helm, each grand tree will be considered individually before being cut, despite the permit already being issued. She foresees a Maybank Highway with safe crosswalks, bike lanes, and a neighborhood feel, including on-street parallel parking in what are now the highway's outer lanes.
Although many of the project's neighbors might like the idea of walking from their home to Zia Taqueria or the Mustard Seed for dinner and a movie at the Terrace Theater, they also take issue with 350 new housing units appearing en masse on a long-vacant lot. Sandrine Danielson, an architect with local firm LS3P and resident of Woodland Shores Road, worries that the project won't fit the character of the area, despite any well-meaning intentions of the gathering-place zoning.
"At the Wal-Mart site, there were only 30 grand trees in question, and everybody was so insulted," Danielson says, referring to the 2008 fight James Islanders won to stop the retail store's expansion into a Super Wal-Mart. "Now we're talking about 60 trees, right on a main thoroughfare."
Danielson also questions a process that allows the zoning board to approve a project's scope before it reaches the architects and civil engineers who sit on the Design and Review Board (DRB). She worries that the piecemeal method of developing the island (thanks to pockets owned by the city and other property owners still negotiating to rejoin a new Town of James Island) won't result in sidewalks and bike lanes that actually connect and attract people to utilize them. Finally, she questions whether improving Maybank Highway in ways that would increase pedestrian and bike traffic (but reduce lanes for car traffic) is part of an overall plan to coincide with the presumed completion of Interstate 526.
To that, planning director Keane and CCL's Zimmerman both respond that adding connecting, alternate routes and making Maybank more pedestrian-friendly is a worthy pursuit, with or without the Interstate extension. Keane points out that despite traffic at the Folly-Maybank intersection during rush hours, the traffic numbers along the stretch — around 25,000 trips each day — are "way under capacity."
Most of the concerns the City has heard, Keane says, ultimately take issue with zoning determined over a decade ago, not with any design criteria that can be changed today without first revising the area's gathering-space zoning. Zimmerman says that's due to a lack of understanding about the designation's meaning.
"This particular development really hit home the realization that there's a lot pending for James Island, and there needs to be a better-communicated vision of what the city's planners are anticipating," says Zimmerman, who hopes to work with the city to arrange six to eight community meetings around the island for citizens to express their visions for the future. "We need to dissect the planning language so residents know what it means when the city says something like 'gathering place.'"
In February, the Residential Group's Atlanta-based architect and Seamon Whiteside met with city staff to flesh out a shared vision. A project submittal to DRB is currently pending. "The developer is serious about things moving at a pretty good clip," Seamon Whiteside's Eubanks says.