Mt. Pleasant is working hard to live up to its name, but whether it does so by maintaining the small-town atmosphere of Coleman Boulevard or transforming the street into a bustling yet attractive downtown is up for discussion.
On one corner, you have the preservationists, fervently trying to protect the charm and character of the Old Village and fighting against, as one local said "the ruination of Shem Creek." There's a lot of reminiscing about the good ole days.
In opposition are those who are seeking to manage the ever-increasing flow of residents and visitors to this part of Mt. Pleasant by building more roads, more homes, and more shops. Called pro-business, it's where everyone's dreaming of a bright future and a fat wallet.
Somewhere in the middle is where you will find Mt. Pleasant Mayor Linda Page and Jim Owens, lifelong resident, debating the urbanization and development of Coleman Boulevard and more specifically, a proposed parking garage on the corner of Mill Street and Coleman Boulevard, a stone's throw from Shem Creek.
Initially, the proposed garage was zoned for 45-feet tall, and in November 2013, the council approved an ordinance to allow it to be raised to 55 feet. Some $2.7 million in public funds is being used to help build this five-story mixed-use building.
This garage is just one piece in a larger, multilayer puzzle reimagining Mt. Pleasant courtesy of the 2007 Coleman Revitalization Advisory Board (CRAB). This town-backed initiative involved government officials, residents, business owners, property owners, nonprofits, and public utilities who collaborated and created a master plan for the area after nine months of studying and reviewing urban design, transportation, zoning, and economic development.
"If you read the CRAB report," says Councilman Elton Carrier, who was one of its board members, "you will find an extension of the 'main street' from basically Royall Hardware to Shem Creek. There will be additional office buildings, more pocket parks, restaurants, on-street casual dining, etc. There will be a major roundabout in front of Royall Hardware. Commercial development will continue over the next 20 years."
This all sounds well and good on paper, but the reality has fallen short of people's expectations. It is certainly hard to miss the towering Boulevard, a behemoth mixed-use apartment complex that casts a shadow over all neighboring buildings. And then there's the Earl's Court debacle, where locals belatedly discovered a single acre of land in the Old Village and managed to squeeze in 26 homes. Many feel it wasn't in keeping with the spread out, spacious neighborhood appeal of the area, not to mention adding to parking woes. Suddenly a gun shop and an e-cig store sprouted up nearby and people realized they needed to start paying attention to things like the Planning Committee and Design Review Board.
Tom Utsey, long-time resident, spoke at a recent town meeting about the proposed garage to the support of the crowd. "We came to this fight late and uninformed," he says. "This project and the urbanization of Coleman Boulevard is a huge tanker that left the dock and is moving. There is no stopping them. Council members are going down with the ship along with CRAB and the overlay district. They aren't listening to us, the ones who want it to be like it used to be. The mind-set of the council has shifted. Our elected officials went from protecting Mt. Pleasant to pro-business."
As host of the meeting, Councilman Gary Santos has taken up the anti-garage cause on the premise of informing the public about these issues. Sadly, he often sounds like the last kid picked for the team, repeatedly talking about how none of his fellow council members will second his motions for discussion. "I've had two strikes against me. Twice I've had no seconds when I made a motion. It doesn't mean you have to vote for it, but just talk about it," he says. "They elected us to talk about issues. They've avoided the conversation. Debate is stifled."
Fellow Councilman Carrier is rankled by Santos, who he says, "fires up a small group of zealots who are against most of what took years to accomplish on Coleman Boulevard."
Carrier adds, "Councilman Santos has stated he will make everything on Coleman as it once was before the CRAB. He ran for office on that theme. He will fail. The eight council members who do not attend Mr. Santos' meetings feel we are not prepared to undo what took years and a dream to accomplish."
While it's easy to see how this topic can spiral out into small-town theatrics, Jim Owens, an opponent of the Shem Creek parking garage, is keeping more than a level head; he's focusing on the cause at hand. "I want to do whatever I can to assist the residents who chose to purchase homes around the area, to eliminate large buildings being built around Shem Creek. I'm not here to twist arms or point fingers. We have the right to petition the town to have our voice heard," Owens says.
Joanna Ghegan has tried to be heard but has been frustrated for her efforts. "Growth is coming, but it can be controlled and responsible, without changing the face of the community so drastically. But changes are made without us knowing about it, like this garage, so I began researching it. I emailed all the council and heard back from only Santos. I even tried through their admin assistants but failed to get a response."
Ghegan dislikes the location and height, arguing, "This building will be tallest in the area. It'll be the predominate structure driving over Shem Creek. When you're on the water on a paddleboard or kayak, this looming structure is what you'll see. The mass and scale don't match the rest of the surroundings. We're not against the garage or office space, but not there and in that zone and such a historic site. It's a special atmosphere."
She's not against changing her mind though. "I'd support it if we went to the original ordinance of 45 feet and if we could have some input on the way it looks. Right now, the sign is up, the plans are out, and no one has been asked their opinion," she says.
Mayor Linda Page doesn't agree. She says, "There are three public meeting opportunities. I can't imagine how it's under the radar." And as for Santos not getting any seconds, she sides with Carrier, explaining, "There's nothing to vote on. We don't know what he's trying to accomplish. He'll say 'Well I don't like XYZ' and we all say, 'OK, we're sorry you don't like it, but there's no action to be taken.' He can make a motion."
She continues, "Here's an analogy, 'Let's just say you have 27 nieces and nephews, a big bus, and it's 9 p.m. While you know the ice cream store is closed as you're an adult, you still tell the children you're going for ice cream, and get everybody excited and on the bus. But then, as you expected, the store is closed, and now you've got 27 angry nieces and nephews. Gary knows these decisions have been made."
It turns out, Santos' public pleas and Owens' online petition on Change.org, now at over 1,500 signatures, is giving a lot of attention to the topic. Mayor Page stands by her decisions, "I supported it. I continue to support it. I voted for the idea for increasing parking capacity. I want to give people an opportunity to park and dine and shop. Our Shem Creek Park has 34 spots right now and they're full."
She is also interested in balancing the information currently being presented. "There is some misconception involved and I'd like to clarify what we agreed to do. Last year we voted to allow a structure to be built on that property — ultimately 5 feet taller than what they were allowed, measured to the eve," Page says. "We entered into a public partnership to fund additional parking spaces that we would have use of 24/7. Plus, we will have access to the working parking spaces after working hours and on the weekend. And, it's not on the creek."
Page adds, "This garage isn't about making money. We're looking to make good partnerships to promote tourism. The money to pay for this comes from the Accommodation Tax Committee, which is a set amount of funds that have to be spent in a certain way. We see this as investment in the hospitality of the area."
She also seems to be pushing back on the call for change by the petitions and Santos. "We're not building on anything tomorrow, and we're not voting on it Tuesday. At this time there has been nothing to vote on. Development has brought in one rendering for sight plan review. There were some problems, so they have to come back. It's hard to fight what I haven't seen," she says.
Page flips the script on the protesters, stating, "People have property rights. They're allowed to build. If we don't give the private public partnership — he can build it tomorrow without a parking deck, and it's just an office building with no public gain and more congestion. There's no added benefit."
Jim Owens disagrees with this tack, stating, "The last council meeting changed an ordinance, so now there are 20 foot setbacks instead of five. There are still a lot of unknowns. I would caution that everyone pause and reflect about the direction we're headed. Because public funds are being used, I believe that council should have garnered public support."
For all the attention being paid to the CRAB 2007 report by town officials, they seem to be selective, as very little is being made of the Coleman/Ben Sawyer Blvds. Revitalization Master Plan, which states, "Shem Creek is a natural and historical asset of Mt. Pleasant and is one of the most photographed places in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Careful consideration should be given by the town of Mt. Pleasant in order to ensure that Coleman Boulevard revitalization efforts promote the public enjoyment of the creek and compliment the creek's natural beauty and health of its businesses, particularly of the shrimp fleet and other commercial fishing vessels."
Another town report from 2002, called "Preserving the Character of Shem Creek" stated, "The committee has worked under the presumption that change is inevitable; in fact, change is apparent even in the past 20 years and pressures for change are evident today. However, the committee has agreed that the 'naturally water dependent' character of Shem Creek is vitally important to the town, and that any future projects in the area should serve to enhance that character, not detract from it."
All these documents are available on the town's website, as well as Owens' Saving Shem Creek Facebook page. He says, "Those policies are being ignored. We would prefer they be utilized to govern so we can all benefit. We ask those plans we worked on and paid for are seen and used as a guidance tool. It's about preserving [the] natural landscape of Shem Creek and respecting the documents."
Santos is taking that next step and making a motion to pull the funds out of the project, although this isn't likely to be successful. Says Page, "Nothing can be done without five of us on the council rescinding a vote on an ordinance where we agreed to do a public/private partnerships with a number of potential buildings in the zone, not on that particular garage design."
She continues, "Ultimately you have to make decisions that are best for the whole community and the 72,000 people that live here."
It seems Owens is finally in agreement with Page as he says, "I want what's best for the town's people. We all have decisions to make. Character is built by what we stand for, reputation by the decisions we make. We have to be held accountable for those decisions."