Four times a day, the water in Shem Creek alters its course. The tide, this perpetually indecisive flow that governs the Lowcountry's coastline, brings constant alterations in the shape and character of the landscape.
Only half a century ago, the banks of Shem Creek were mud and grass, and the surrounding salt marsh was literally Mt. Pleasant's town dump. As the marsh was filled in to provide dry land for fishing docks and ice houses, it developed the sleepy fishing town aura that it's known for today.
Development already differentiates Shem Creek from all the other streams that flow in and out of Charleston, but further growth could compromise the landscape and way of life that give the place its charm and reputation. A new hotel and condominiums may soon share space with the seafood restaurants, old docks, rustic wooden hotel, and less than a dozen remaining fishing boats.
Several property owners along the quarter mile or so of Shem Creek's developable land have significant projects in the works. Billboards inviting drivers to "Own The Landing" have loomed over Charleston for over a year, a project that developer Richard H. Coen (builder of the Hilton at Patriots Point and Tides at the foot of the Ravenel Bridge) recently scaled back from a four-building 166-room condo-tel to a 120-room, single-building hotel. Next door, realtor Rick Maull is awaiting a public hearing on February 13 to get the final determination on whether he can build seven townhouses on the former Cottage on the Creek property, a project already rejected by the Town Council Planning and Development Committee last week. Across the creek, attorney Mark Mason hopes a "Shem Creek Master Plan" will be adopted to create public access via docks and a park. He also plans to build a mixed-use, 24-condominium project on the OK Tire property that he owns, including as many boat slips in the water.
Like many of the current 'players' on Shem Creek, 22-year-old Magdalyn Duffie grew up around the Old Village of Mt. Pleasant, spending weekends and summer evenings on her family's boat in the creek. In early December, incensed in particular by The Landing, the recent college graduate began a "Save Shem Creek" group on the student-oriented online social networking website Facebook. The page's introduction alleges the creek is being "destroyed and defiled," with the proclaimed purpose of informing people so that developers can't "thrive off the fact that no one knows the situation."
Within a month, "Save Shem Creek" had over 2,000 members and an active daily discussion board. Posts such as "Where is Coen's soul? I think I saw it pushing old ladies down in the street" are still common from the primarily high school and college-aged members, a trend that prompted Coen to join Facebook and personally respond.
After a post from screen name "Molly Chamberlain" called him a "horrible person for destroying nature," Coen replied with a post that read "Molly, we are not building condos and never were," then invited her to meet with him before informing her that her post was "false, damaging, and you are liable for it."
"Once you say something you can't get it back," says Coen. "It's like toothpaste -- once you squeeze it out of the tube you can't get it back in. I have to think that they type things they would never say."
After another post called Coen a "fagget [sic] ass" that "should be shot," Coen's son, a Porter-Gaud student, responded on the site to defend his father. Coen Sr. then claims to have contacted the FBI and the Mt. Pleasant police, as well as issuing an open invitation on the site for members to meet with him at his office. Site administrator Duffie removed threatening posts from the website and retained a lawyer, but has not met with Coen personally.
"People on Facebook are intentionally misled. Saving this creek isn't about irresponsible criticism," says Coen. "It's about getting off the couch and picking up bottles and cans, or stopping a leaking fuel system, or reducing the amount of storm water runoff. It's not about costing people their reputation or making their kids not sleep at night. I think Magdalyn (Duffie) is very destructive."
The Thin Red Property Line
The Facebook site is just one of many obstacles Coen has faced in his efforts to develop his property on Shem Creek. Soon after personally renovating and opening Red's Ice House he sold the lease to Wild Wing owner Dianne Crowley. He claims a clause in the contract allows him to buy it back at any time with a 30-day notice.
When his Big Game restaurant closed next door after a year of operation, he moved on to the bigger Landing project, whose plans included demolishing the Trawler/Big Game building and incorporating Red's as the resort's restaurant. Crowley, however, claims they had a gentlemens' agreement of five to seven years, and was unwilling to sell Red's back to Coen after just two years for the million-and-a-quarter he says the contract dictates the price to be. She now faces a lawsuit upwards of $20 million. "He's pretty much holding me responsible for The Landing not being built," says Crowley.
Coen contends that Crowley took five months to respond with financial paperwork after he issued his 30-day notice late last spring, and that in that time the condominium market disappeared, forcing him to change plans to a conventional hotel. Crowley asserts that she worked with Coen all along to incorporate Red's into The Landing, including specifics "down to what the people on room service would wear," but says he reneged and demanded she sell. With space already limited at Shem Creek, Coen explains that providing parking for an independent restaurant and a 166-room hotel was not feasible, and required "common ownership" for the town to allow him to not provide separate parking for Red's.
"It makes us sick that he wants to turn Red's into an upscale martini-type bar," says Crowley. "He's a goliath who seems to be able to get anything he wants." Coen feels that Red's needs some discipline. "At times it's wide open," he says. "No laws, no rules, no respect for Shem Creek or other patrons. It's just out of hand."
As their landlord, he's erected a chain-link fence that limits Red's parking, and Crowley claims that he ties up boats that encroach on Red's pier. "It surprises me that she wasn't logical enough to accept a million two-fifty, avoid millions in damages, avoid a lawsuit from me, and go back to selling wings," says Coen.
Heroes and Villains
"When we started working on Shem Creek, back about 2000, it was a cesspool," says Coen. "There was diesel fuel in the water, trash, dead birds and fish, a lot of carcasses, it was really just a dumping ground." Coen recognizes that people are "normally suspicious" of developers, and he avidly points out the benefits he's brought to the creek. "I'll never be thanked for it, but I definitely raised the level of awareness," he says.
The Landing, (if that name is kept for the hotel), includes stormwater-catchment systems that will prevent runoff from flowing into the creek. The added expense of using responsible building techniques led Coen to market The Landing as a "luxury condo hotel." He concedes that the resort concept may have "ticked some people off, but all we're trying to do is sell rooms for the most we can."
Coen stresses that he helped run off the drunks and drug addicts living on derelict boats, spent tens of thousands repairing docks he doesn't own to make them safe, and avows to have never displaced a shrimp boat even when they couldn't pay rent. "As developers," he asks, "why would we run off the shrimp boats when that's what people are out here to see?"
Across the creek, landowner Mark Mason feels similarly about increasing his own profit through public access and improvements to infrastructure. Mason is behind a "master plan" that calls for a public walkway/dock along both sides of the creek, as well as a fishing pier, observation deck, and park on a hammock island. He has offered to fund the park project with revenues from 24 boat slips at the Bailey docks, just harbor-side of Vickery's. According to Mason, a private permit already exists for the slips, but he hopes to scrap that in favor of working with the town.
Mason got the preliminary approval of the Coleman Boulevard Revitalization Advisory Board (CRAB) for the master plan, and insists it is "overwhelmingly supported." Others disagree, unwilling to support the addition of private boat slips on Shem Creek. "We're trying to maintain the character of a commercial fishing creek, and not a marina, as Mr. Mason would have," states Mt. Pleasant town council member Joe Bustos.
Bustos contests that the CRAB has no authority to approve or disapprove such a project. Pieces of Mason's property are owned by Charleston County, and Bustos feels that Mason's trying to "twist the town's arm" by threatening to go over their heads.
Town administrator Mac Burdette verifies that Mason has made no formal submission to the town for his project. "That doesn't mean that if he made an application to make these improvements that it wouldn't be approved," says Burdette. He asserts that Mason needs to demonstrate the other property owners' willingness to cooperate in a public access walkway before the town can approve it, as well as annexing the Bailey docks land into the town.
A public dock would certainly encourage Shem Creek to become more of a retail destination, but Mason insists that his plan will also allow commercial shrimping to remain by requiring each property owner to provide space for a fishing boat. He talks about an interactive experience with a shrimp boat docked at his proposed public pier.
"The role of town council ought to be 'What can we get for our citizens in the process of what's inevitably going to take place?'," says Mason, citing Mayor Riley's give-and-take approach around condominium projects ringing the peninsula. He envisions an orderly dock with handrails that doesn't look "like someone just willy-nillied together some piece of crap," and believes action is needed now to prevent gated, private docks on the creek in the future. "I can do this privately and be a real jerk, or I can be a team player and give something back," says Mason.
"A Cauldron of Intrigue"
Etched into the concrete outside Magwood Seafood on Shem Creek is the date "1972," the year when Wayne Magwood's father opened the fishing and shrimping operation. Wayne and his co-workers are still the friendliest, most down-to-earth people you'll meet on the creek. For his company to survive, he's begun the construction of a 65-boat dry stack storage facility next to his ice and packing house. "I've been fishing all my life, and I wish it was all I had to do," says Magwood. "I hate to change the creek, but to keep the shrimp boats and property I've got to build this."
People like the Magwoods rely on the waters of Shem Creek for their livelihood, and while they haven't vocally opposed projects like The Landing, their sentiments are evident in their reluctance to build on their own land. Magwood worries that Mason's project will narrow the creek's navigable waters, and make it look "like Miami."
"We're not just fighting what God's putting in the ocean," says deckhand Richard Grassie. "We're fighting our own government and consumers who are uneducated about where their seafood comes from." Magwood tells the story of a waitress at a creekside restaurant pointing out the Betty Boop, a boat rigged for swordfish, and telling her table their shrimp came off that boat, when in fact they were likely imported from Asia. Local shrimpers struggle when their neighbors on the creek aren't even buying their catch.
"People like to sit in an air conditioned bar and look out at shrimp boats, but they don't want to smell the nasty old boats, or hear them, or be around those people," says Grassie. "They want to look at them and drink their cocktails." He mentions solemnly that fishermen in Key West would have laughed 25 years ago if you told them they'd be pushed out. "Now they've run them all over to Stock Island." Magwood wants to avoid that scenario at Shem Creek, and claims "as long as I can crawl on that boat, I'll be here."
At 6 p.m. on Mon., Feb. 12, CRAB will meet publicly at the G.M. Darby Building at 302 Pitt St., during which the Shem Creek master plan will be up for discussion. On the next night there's a public hearing at town hall to discuss whether Crowley's Cottage on the Creek property should be amended on the comprehensive land use plan to allow residential use.
After her problems with Coen began, Crowley entered into discussion with realtor Rick Maull and his attorney Jonathan Yates over the sale of the Cottage land (The deal remains under contract.) Marine district zoning would currently allow Maull to build a massive dry stack operation on the property, but not seven dwellings. He's already been denied once, and hopes that with some reworking of the plan he'll get approval this week for his mixed-use retail and residential development.
Slightly up the creek, Coen's Landing passed its impact assessment last year by not including full kitchens in the condominiums, thus discouraging full-time residence. In the town government's eyes, a 166-room condo-tel is permissible as long as people aren't able to cook a big dinner. "It would be a damn shame if Coen gets to build a multiunit hotel, but somebody else can't build seven houses," says Crowley. "It's an unfortunate example of how money equals political clout. I think it's simply that he's (Coen) put the right money in the right people's campaigns."
The night before he sat down with City Paper, Coen hosted Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney at his home. He contacted the paper just before press time to inquire about statements other interviewees might have made about him, and to express his regret for any "derogatory comments" of his own, asking that we exclude them in the best interest of everyone involved. "Richard cares very much about what people in his vicinity think of him," says Crowley. "He doesn't want people to think that he's a bad guy."
Coen awaits only the approval of the Design Review Board before he begins construction of his hotel. In the meantime, he's embroiled in a lawsuit with his neighbor at Red's, and is still bothered by comments like "Richard Coen makes his money by shitting on Charleston" that appear daily on Facebook. "I always thought that the Shem Creek community should come together and do things that are mutually beneficial, but I don't know if it'll ever happen," says Coen. "People should learn to coexist and not be so critical."
The "can't-we-all-just-get-along" mentality typically springs from those already living in comfort. Coen speaks woefully that the scrapped condo-tel plans are a huge loss to the community, lamenting the "nights and weekends" his staff spent in its planning and pointing out that the new hotel won't be "nearly as profitable."
"We're trying to find what will work economically but not erode the character of the creek," says town administrator Burdette. Each developer makes the point that it's ironic when a huge dry stack facility, adding noise and dozens or even hundreds of private boats to the creek, is permitted, yet 24 slips or seven townhouses are not. They also each have the attitude that what's happening is progress, and that it's a shame if the town chooses not to cooperate.
"Not everybody's going to love it, and they're going to say, 'You're blocking my view,'" says Mason about his planned condominiums on the OK Tire property. "People might not like it, but that's what private property and zoning are all about."
Property rights are at the essence of a capitalistic society, along with the power of free speech and the right to criticize. Duffie's Facebook site began as a place to spread information, and has successfully brought attention that developers like Coen could probably live without. He accuses Duffie of simply "trying to protect her watering hole."
"I want people to know Shem Creek the way I've had the pleasure of knowing it," says Duffie. "I'm not saying that these developments will eliminate Shem Creek, but they will change it." On Facebook, Save Shem Creek group member "Laura Noblin" posted that she loves the creek's "people, its flavor, and the battered old buildings. The fact that the land may not be sucking out every possible profit it could generate does not mean it should be changed."
On the wall in Coen's office hangs an advertisement for The Landing that shows a baby loggerhead sea turtle walking toward the ocean, with the caption: "Think Big. Some see simply what's there. Others see the magnitude of what's to come."
To some people, what's already there is simply enough.