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The Charleston Neck Gentrification's Last Frontier!
Demands of Coastal Conservation League will do little for conservation
Lee Walton

Several, seemingly unconnected events have recently combined to open up the "Last Frontier" for gentrification in the Upper Peninsula and Neck. In a Palter & Chatter article on June 6th, Dana Beach, Coastal Conservation League's Executive Director, expressed atypical demands for the relocation of I-26 saying "County Council should spend its half-cent sales tax dollars on improvements to the Interstate 26 corridor, or neighborhoods in the upper peninsula will continue to suffer." A closer scrutiny of several ambitious redevelopment plans being implemented in these areas will have the opposite effect by creating a "wild west stampede" for opportunistic developers.

After only tepidly opposing the 2004 Half-Cent Sales Tax referendum, whichincluded some funding for remainder of I-526, it is puzzling to hear Dana Beach continue to rant against the completion of this critically needed regional ransportation project. His opposition should now be tempered by several recent announcements to significantly limit growth on Johns Island and West Ashley beyond the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). Both Charleston County and the City of Charleston have publicly committed to maintaining low-density rural development and rural zoning beyond the UGB. Recently, Charleston CPW also announced its intent to restrict expansion of water and sewer service on Johns Island and adjacent areas beyond the UGB. The Coastal Conservation League should applaud these actions and work with the City, CPW and County to insure the implementation of these new policies for the future protection of Johns Island as the last remaining segment of I-526 is completed.

Major urban redevelopment projects now underway within Charleston and North Charleston are creating a gentrification "squeeze play" in the predominately African-American neighborhoods throughout the Upper Peninsula and Charleston Neck. It is not coincidental that several public and private efforts are also underway to promote the shift of the I-26 Corridor eastward toward Shipyard Creek to free-up more developable land west of the Meeting Street Extension. Recent zoning changes in the lower Neck now discourage continued industrial land use while facilitating major private sector residential and commercial redevelopment from Columbus Street northward to Charleston's shared boundary with North Charleston.

Ongoing urban redevelopment within North Charleston has already yielded significant, positive quality-of-life benefits for its citizens, albeit at the loss of considerable low and very low-income housing. These efforts, spearheaded by John Knott's flagship Noisette Project, include redevelopment within several Park Circle area neighborhoods, revitalization of the East Montague Avenue Commercial District, Center Point, and federally funded "Hope-6" redevelopment of large public housing projects. Without the implementation of specific safeguards to protect existing affordable housing in the Upper Neck, relocating I-26 eastward toward Shipyard Creek will accelerate North Charleston's redevelopment opportunities and further exacerbate gentrification impacts.

The Coastal Conservation League has been a positive force in the coastal region by promoting public policy in support of sustainable growth, responsible regional land use planning, conservation of natural resources, and environmental protection. Regrettably, the League's uncharacteristic demand for the relocation of the I-26 Corridor in the Neck will do little for the conservation and preservation of many vulnerable neighborhoods that would suffer the unintended consequences that this action would precipitate.

The relatively stable neighborhoods in these areas currently contain some of the highest concentrations of urban Africa-American homeowners in the Greater Charleston Area. The socio-economic and political ramifications of a gentrified Upper Peninsula and Charleston Neck would significantly reduce minority representation on both Charleston City Council and Charleston County Council. Minority single-member districts would become much harder to maintain. African-American elected representation would be reduced and marginalized as the minority populations within these areas are compelled to seek more affordable housing elsewhere. Urban gentrification on Charleston's East Side has already caused the loss of one minority Charleston City Council seat after the 2000 redistricting.

As African-Americans are forced to relocate from their historic neighborhoods, their cultural and social infrastructure and extended family support networks suffer greatly. Neighborhood churches, so vital to the preservation of African-American culture and tradition, decline as families move and congregations shrink. Recently, the New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church at Elizabeth and Charlotte Streets almost became a victim of "readaptive use" due to adverse gentrification impacts in Wraggborough.

"Coastal conservation" must not be just about appropriate land use, Smart Growth and the preservation of marshes, wetlands and wildlife; it must also encompass and embrace the conservation and preservation of the Low Country's unique culture, heritage and diversity. Before further major redevelopment occurs within the Upper Peninsula and Neck, necessary safeguards must be instituted for the conservation and preservation of the area's urban African-American culture, elected representation and religious institutions that will be gravely impacted by accelerated gentrification.

County Council should not waiver from its commitment to the completion of I-526. Notwithstanding the not-to-idle threat by the Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation League about "…going to the politicians and demanding they pull back" and "…demand citizens input is taken seriously", the citizens of West Ashley, James and Johns Islands, Folly Beach, Kiawah and Seabrook Islands now demand their promised relief from chronic traffic congestion and a safe, rapid hurricane evacuation route in return for their support of the 2004 Half-cent Sales Tax Referendum. Remember, promises, promises - the voters will remember in November.

The Coastal Conservation League's Executive Director should be reminded often that our unique coastal milieu is created by the synergy of its natural environment and diverse human cultures; their mutual survival often requires reasonable compromise.

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