Civic leaders discuss the pros and cons of both density and sprawl 

Developing News

Bert's Bar on Sullivan's Island is one of those places you'd have to call an institution. In the early '70s, men would purchase beer after work at the grocery store where Poe's now stands, then walk across the street to the pharmacy to drink and socialize. The proprietors eventually stopped selling prescriptions and stuck with suds.

Current owner Tim Runyan has led Bert's through its last 23 years, but by the time this story hits the stands, he'll have likely closed up shop. When the longtime property owner passed away two years ago, control fell into the hands of his family. Runyan says he will be unable to pay the new, higher rent when his five-year lease expires in January.

"To hell with it," says Runyan, who says that after a quarter century he'll be out looking for a job in the next month. "The old guard on Sullivan's is gone. Now it's home to the rich and famous — the upper crust — and they don't frequent this place anyway."

It's hard to imagine Sullivan's without its quintessential dive bar, harboring the few old-timers and salty characters that remain on the island. Just like it's difficult to fathom the downtown music scene without Cumberland's, which also closes its doors this month. After Granny's Goodies abruptly closed this summer — the vintage clothing store shared the same building as the club — the property owner and Cumberland's were unable to renegotiate a contract. The music venue will now shut its doors on New Year's Day.

Cumberland's manager Jake Pigg speculates that the space will be used for retail. "All the little people are being pushed out to make room for the corporate giants," he says.

Real estate is slumping nationally, but our consistent pace of development suggests that the Lowcountry may be relatively immune from the trend. We can't create more coastal property, and the demand for waterfront views has not diminished with the faltering housing market.

Just off Folly Beach, another music venue closed its doors last week, making room for new residential development. Barrier Islands Surf Shop has been hosting concerts on their marshfront patio for the last four years, serving drinks from a bar built around a live oak tree and typically packing the place every time they opened.

"This was one of the few landmarks on the way to Folly Beach that wasn't condos," says Barrier Islands Surf Shop owner Wes Lybrand.

Just a mile closer to the beach, another major project is underway — the Preserve at the Clam Farm. With 62 "luxury condos" in the works, the site is currently a multi-acre pile of overturned dirt and concrete — hardly a "preserve."

The "condofication" of Charleston has planners, builders, and conservationists alike at odds over whether density or sprawl is more favorable. Last Monday, nearly 200 of the tricounty area's most influential leaders gathered at Trident Tech for the Urban Land Institute's Reality Check, a day-long game using color-designated Legos to plan Charleston's growth. Diverse groups of about eight attendees collaborated to place the pieces — yellow means houses, red means jobs, different color ribbons mean widen the road, build new transit, or green-space — on a map of the area, carefully balancing the population increase we expect between now and 2030.

Reality Check drew a who's-who of Charleston, including mayors, council members, and major developers from throughout the region, with Mt. Pleasant as the only local municipality not sending a delegation. The "guiding principles" that each group decided on were similar throughout the room, including jobs close to housing, preserving an area's uniqueness, pedestrian-friendly communities with multiple transportation options, and greenspace. Disputes arose over where to concentrate growth or which roads to widen, but everyone seemed to agree that Charleston needs proper planning to preserve our quality of life.

"There's a real conundrum, where if you don't like density, you'd better be prepared for sprawl, and if you don't like sprawl, then you have to embrace density," says Michael Dawson, a Summerville town council member. He explains that his group's goal of concentric circles of density around a town center was difficult to convey with the Legos.

I'on founder Vince Graham agrees, pointing out that the tricounty area depicted is larger than Atlanta. "It's kind of hard to get your mind around this vast of a region," says Graham. "The Charleston city limits alone are bigger than those of Boston and Washington, D.C., combined. There's a perception that we're a condensed, downtown city, but the reality is that Charleston is one of the most sprawling cities in the country. We're extremely low density."

At 3,000 acres in 1960, the city of Charleston now claims 70,000 acres, an average growth of four acres per day over the last half century. While green space and new rail lines were both used to alleviate traffic and limit sprawl at Reality Check, the most popular guideline for growth was urban in-fill development, or building around existing infrastructure. That type of development limits sprawl while encouraging density. But density encourages condos.

At the corner of King and Wentworth streets downtown, across the way from Sermet's, there's an old Masonic temple currently being restored for residential use. The 22,000-square-foot space has been a theater, a ballet studio, and office space before sitting unused for nearly a decade. A standing-room balcony still exists on the top floor, and the door reads "Performance Center" as you enter the now wide-open space. Soon it'll house about 19 units, in the heart of King Street's business district.

The temple will be a nice place to live. Growth and change aren't inherently bad. Just this week, a new music venue and restaurant, the Tin Roof, opened at the site of the old Bait and Tackle in West Ashley. Where the Anchor Line once served fried seafood along the Folly River, a new independent restaurant is scheduled to open in May (the building was purchased by the Variety Restaurant in Aiken). At Avocet Properties' new Center Street building on Folly Beach, they plan to lease to a clothing store. Time and patronage will tell if these start-ups can outlast the businesses that preceded them.

The Urban Land Institute plans to turn their Reality Check findings over to the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments, a group whose purpose is to help the three counties coordinate planning and growth. Even with a concerted effort to manage growth responsibly, urban in-fill and rising land prices will continue to drive off small business owners, who comprise so much of what gives places like Sullivan's and Folly their uniqueness.

With Bert's, Cumberland's, and Barrier Islands all closing this month, both Charleston's bar and music scenes are sustaining a major hit. Cumberland's alone hosts over 300 concerts a year, and with the former Warehouse venue on King Street now a Biton department store, there's nowhere else in the college district to host local bands.

"It's the independent bars that are taking the hit," says Bert's Runyan. "You'll see corporate, chain establishments with more and more frequency. I have friends going through the same things, and it's pretty much the same scenario all over town."


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