Right now, the site of the Mixson Avenue development planned for North Charleston looks like a barren, sparsely wooded field of wasted promise. Apparently, that's an improvement.
The World War II era buildings were laden with lead paint and asbestos siding and were only about half-occupied.
Most sprawling suburban developments pick the nearest field with the easiest access and the prettiest oak trees. But two urban infill projects are heading toward construction, investing millions of dollars in a vision unimaginable to most when you consider what has come before.
"As Mae West once said, 'Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly,'" says Vince Graham, who hosted a ground breaking for Mixson earlier this month.
The creators of Mt. Pleasant's I'On neighborhood bought the once dangerous and downtrodden John C. Calhoun housing project, relocated remaining residents, and razed it a few years back to make way for Mixson, North Charleston's 950-unit urbanist development.
The hope is that the project will be an improvement to its Mt. Pleasant sibling by embracing more environmentally friendly features and providing a healthy dose of affordable housing.
"Our goal is that the homes of Mixson will be better built than the homes of I'On," says Graham, who hopes that former residents of the Calhoun projects will move back in.
Not too far south from last week's ground breaking at Mixson, patient developers of the Magnolia property, a collection of old industrial yards along the Ashley River, will be presenting their plan this week to the city of Charleston's Planning Commission for conceptual approval.
The Magnolia developers have been working for years to relocate remaining industrial businesses and clean up old facilities. The area includes three national priority sites that have required cleanup as part of the development. While plans include treelined streets and parks within a five-minute walk from anywhere on the site, a look out toward the Ashley from Interstate 26 now would include nary a blade of grass, unless you count weeds climbing from cracks in the concrete.
"Let us not forget where we came from," says Scott Parker, a designer on the project with DesignWorks.
The city staff has been meeting with the developers on a weekly basis for months to keep up to date with basic plans and should be ready with their endorsement this week, says planning director Josh Martin.
Like Mixson, Magnolia will offer housing for "all economic backgrounds," according to Cope Willis, a project coordinator with Magnolia. The community will also utilize sustainable designs, including an interconnected grid of streets that maximizes use of the prevailing breeze and the orientation of the sun.
"We're taking the natural environment and creating our project around it," Parker says.
Magnolia will include 24 acres of public parks, including 14 acres opening the entire waterfront, and 89 acres of development, including up to 4,400 units, 900 hotel rooms, and more than 2 million square feet of office, retail, and civic space.
Demolition and site cleanup is ongoing, with construction on the roads, that will eventually include a new bridge over the marsh, beginning in 2008.
The benefit of urban infill is that the infrastructure in many cases is already there to support the development. In Magnolia's case, that included large connecting water lines and a nearby processing plant, as well as convenient access to Interstate 26. By replacing an industrial wasteland, Magnolia also has the benefit of not having to conform to the historical standards of its surroundings, unlike many developments further down the peninsula.
"We're not right in the historic district, so we have an opportunity to do something that speaks of now and Charleston moving forward," Parker says.
Planning commission chairman Francis McCann noted that Magnolia was "a unique field that's being plowed."
It's fair to say Charleston will be watching both communities to see what grows.