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South Carolina Land Use Conference, March 26

Speakers point to solutions to accelerating sprawl
But can they be implemented?

Warwick Jones

Governor Sanford called the conference. But probably as the Governor expected, Andres Duany, the well known architect and planner, dominated it. He and other speakers expressed their concern as to what was happening to South Carolina and other eastern states as they reeled under high population growth. The strong growth seemed certain to continue and unless some action were taken, the quality of life of those in the coastal areas in particular was threatened.

“New urbanism” or the “traditional” approach
There was a solution – “new urbanism”. It was also referred to as the “traditional” approach. It eschewed modern “suburbanism”. It sought to create communities with town centers, smaller building lots, better quality construction, and minimal reliance on the automobile. And although the approach was universally lauded, the common question was how easily would it be adopted? There were unwarranted fears about its impact in the community, rooted more in ignorance than fact, speakers said. But perhaps the biggest obstacle was the numerous planning and zoning bodies, public works departments of the counties and municipalities, and the Department of Transport (SCDOT). Many of these bodies had an ingrained hostility to any change.

Need to start dialogue
In his opening address, the Governor noted the need to start dialogue on what was happening to the state and the solution to the growing sprawl. He said an estimated 1 million people would be drawn to South Carolina by 2030 and about one third would be drawn to the coastal areas. New housing construction could cause the urban area of greater Charleston to extend 18 miles the other side of Summerville. Something had to be done to ameliorate the adverse aspects of this growth. How do we do what is necessary so that people “can look back in 100 years and say “wow” and not “why”? He intimated that the conference was a first step in creating more dialogue in the community to address the problems associated with expected growth.

The conference drew in our count about 250 attendees to the Dock Street Theatre. In an unusual but lauded move, the Governor asked every one to identify themselves, to get an idea of the make up of the audience. As he observed, it was diverse. The largest group was administration and planning from counties and municipalities. There was also a fair sprinkling of realtors and developers, conservation groups and architects. Seemingly vindicating a comment of Mr. Duany about their disinterest in change, there were no representatives of DOT or public works departments. We also suspect that if wider and better notice were given, the overall attendance would have neen larger.

Did not know how badly Charleston was doing
Mr. Duany is known to many in Charleston as a strong opponent to the School of Architecture building originally planned by Clemson and the City on George Street in Ansonborough. Mr. Duany has a reputation for originality and plain speaking. This was confirmed not very far in his opening speech when he referred to the delay in landing at Charleston airport and the opportunity, as the plane circled, to observe the Charleston area. He had not been to Charleston for a while and “did not know had badly you are doing”.

Dana Beach speaks of environmental aspects
But before Mr. Duany gave his own address, Dana Beach of the SC Coastal Conservation League spoke of the “Environmental Aspect of Sprawl”. He noted that the impact was adverse in many areas but spoke specifically of water quality. The increase in impervious surfaces - asphalt roads, driveways, and parking lots - had grown dramatically in recent years and was an agent increasing pollution of water essentially by petroleum based agents. This in turn was a function not only of population growth but increasing use of the car as sprawl advanced. He noted than in a study of the period 1983 to 1990, population growth had increased by 4.5%. But the number of car trips had risen 30%, the trip lengths 15% and the total vehicle miles by 45%. People were traveling more to buy groceries and other goods, commute to work and drop off school children.

Denser development at the right place
He called for denser development at the right place, an approach that he called more fiscally sound. He applauded the development at Ion and that proposed on the Neck. The creation of the Gathering Place Zoning was recognition by the City of Charleston of a need to accommodate a new approach to development. But he called for other changes in local government which he claimed were “not adequate presently to meet the challenge”. In our region, (Greater Charleston?) there were 30 local governments and about 60 bodies including public works and utilities involved in development decisions. There was little coordination. We need vision in South Carolina he concluded.

Environmentalists recognize virtues of “new urbanism”
Following on Mr. Beach, Mr. Duany noted the change in the attitude on environmentalists in recent years. There was a time when the likes of the Sierra Club would accept no compromise. There was an absolutism that was almost religious and no change in the environment was tolerated. He added that they now know that if humans are not happy, then the environment will suffer. The pattern of past development was not serving the middle class: there was a decaying human habitat. There was a need to create a better human habitat, (and this will be served by new urbanism) As an aside, Mr. Duany noted that people were deserting California and moving to Idaho and Nevada, leaving the state they trashed and starting all over again.

“Suburbanism” vs. “Traditional”
Mr. Duany’s presentation was essentially a picture show of examples of “suburbanism” and “traditional” development, what was working and not working. He spoke of the trend of young people to leave suburbia and the relocate to urban areas. A later speaker noted that with families delaying having children and the declining number of children per family, the urge to move to suburbia would fall.

Better quality of life
The quality of life for most folk would rise in “traditional” developments, he claimed. Ideally, the “traditional” development would have a town center. The core would be the commercial and retail facilities, and surrounding and abutting would be the “affordable” housing and that for the elderly. Moving further out, there would be houses with larger lots to accommodate those who wanted yards ands perhaps on the outskirts of town, large houses with large yards. There would be a choice of housing to accommodate the different ages and life styles of the inhabitants. Children would have their neighborhood parks in which to play, adults would not be automobile reliant and could walk to most shops. Children may also be able to walk to school. Shops would be clustered in the town center with accommodation in the upper stories of the structures. Commercial space would be relatively close and either a short drive or the distance walkable. The town would be alive for most of the day and night, and not deserted as workers fled to the suburbs.

Value enhancing
The concept was value enhancing. Mr. Duany speculated that properties in suburbia could well lose value over coming years as the paradigm changed. He said with some note of seriousness that he wondered whether some subdivisions could be easily re converted to farm land. He gave examples where houses in “traditional” developments had appreciated considerably in value, even though they lacked some of the attributes of expensive real estate. He specifically referred to developments in Florida where values of lots in “traditional” concept subdivisions some distance from beaches or a golf course had attained values far exceeding expectations. This was achieved by adherence to quality and good design. He had earlier referred to the success of the Ion development in Charleston which had been “traditional” and values high.

The worst features
Some of the worst and ugliest features of suburbia were shown.
• The garage doors facing the street was unappealing. The street vista was one of garage doors and cars.
• The front of some houses (Mc Mansions) were for show. Spending had been heavy on the front and minimized on the back. Many of these houses were hybrids with a mix of styles. The view from the back, particularly en masse, was plain and boring.
• Although ostensibly there was a lot of open space dedicated in suburban subdivisions, much was wasted and not available for common use.
• Street planning in suburban subdivisions, with “cul de sacs” etc., was inefficient and wasteful of space. Or in other words, there was too much roadway.
• Landscaping was often an excuse for bad design
• 50% of the population does not drive. So why is so much development designed around the automobile? Why is so much dedicated to making access for handicapped who represent such as small percentage of the population when half of the population cannot access facilities?
• Travel times to and from suburbia have increased household spending on travel - shopping, commuting, travel to school.
• Lifestyles have changed. Parents have to deliver children to games (Soccer moms). Before children could play in the community but now they have to be driven out of it.
• It costs about $5000 a year to own and drive a car. At present interest rates, this would be a sufficient annual payment to allow $50,000 in borrowings that could be put towards a house.
• The quality of some new houses in subdivisions - vinyl siding etc - is bad and is derided in Europe
• It is near impossible to provide affordable housing when the average house price is about $130,000. Mobile home builders are redesigning with hopes to provide very attractive units for about $60,000 and this could be a model for future affordable housing.

Although the advantages of the “traditional” approach to development were obvious, its implementation was not possible or difficult in many communities, Mr. Duany said. Many variances and exceptions had to be sought. Clearly there had to be major changes to ordinances to accommodate the concept.

State should set the model
In the conclusion and in discussion of a question, Mr. Duany suggested that the State set the leadership. It should develop a model for development which should be adopted by the counties and the municipalities.

We note that the conference went from 8 am to 6 pm with a 1.5 hour break for lunch. There were other speakers and some interesting questions. A full account would be very lengthy. It would also stretch the endurance of the reader, and ours for a second day in a row.

Your Comments:

I am a New Urbanist myself. The region needs to focus on growing up, not out. Single-use zoning, which seperates living and working spaces, is what created the problems we have now by forcing shopping centers to be seperate from residential neighborhoods. Belle Hall is a good example of the way to build, but I'm thinking ten to twenty stories, not just four or five. Dense urban areas which combine multi-story residential aprtment blocks with office space, retail and smaller corner style grocers instead of the large mega centers we build now. You are correct in realizing the huge cost of auto ownership (nevermind the cost in accidents and injuries) and how that financial expense could be put to a better use in a walkable urban core. Downtown Charleston should halt development in the large scale; I suggest that North Charleston should get off its duff and show some leadership in attracting developers because of its centrality in the region and its potential as a hub to a mass transit system which could incorporate water ferries, light rail, and efficient bus routes (not CARTA at all). I am excited about the developments in the Neck Area. Like it or not, the region will become a large city, and quarter-acre lots are wasteful of space. The average backyard displaces native flora and fauna, while providing no benefit to the greater community in the fashion that a decent size park could provide. We must give up the suburban sprawl model if we hope to accomodate an increasing population and still have the desired open green space for farms and recreation.

Posted by: Lee Roy Brandon III at March 27, 2007 04:10 PM