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City’s vision for urban Johns Island

To embrace “new urbanism”
Warwick Jones

There didn’t seem to be any unhappy residents in the audience. After all, the City’s plans for development of the urban side of Johns Island had been shaped after a series of public meetings; at least that is what the City staff said. From our discussions with a citizen member of the Growth Management Committee that worked with the City, the plan did truly reflect opinions voiced by the public. And to this writer, it was a pleasant surprise to see that these opinions and the broad proposals of the City matched the “new urbanism” concepts preached by many planners including the renowned Andres Duany. Mr. Duany spoke at a planning conference organized by Governor Sanford in Charleston last month. Our report on the conference was posted on March 27.

Focus on “town centers” or “gathering places”
Those of us who heard Mr. Duany and other speakers at the conference could hardly help recognize the similarities of the proposed City plan and the “new urbanism” concepts. Both eschew the conventional subdivision for a more intense but planned approach to development. In the case of the area under study - the urban side of the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) - the City proposed that 3 “town” centers or “gathering places” be developed along the existing Maybank Highway. In very broad terms, the centers would have commercial and retail space at their core. Close to the center would also be relatively intense dwelling units, - town houses, condominiums, and apartments over retail stores - though no structure would be more than 5 to 6 stories. And radiating out from the core would be dwellings with densities per acre that declined with distance from the town center. All centers would have access to green space.

More connectivity
Concomitant with this development would be the plan to create more connectivity between the centers and to developments that already exist or have been approved. Staff said that the canopy of trees along Maybank Highway should not be destroyed or the road widened. “A 5-lane highway was not the way to go”. Staff hoped that by building more connecting roads, pressure would be reduced along Maybank. Staff might have added that the “town” center concept places many dwellings within walking distance of retail and other facilities and that there should be fewer reasons for residents to use a car. And indeed, staff noted that all new roads would be “walkable” - we presume will have sidewalks. See map showing proposed new roadsfrom Post and Courier.


An appealing plan
Well, that is the theory at least, and to us it is appealing. But the City will have to negotiate it way around existing subdivisions and possible contrary plans of some land holders. The City also noted that much of the land on Johns Island and within the UGB was not part of the City but part of the unincorporated area of the County. It hoped that the County would embrace its plan and noted that the County was about to begin updating its Comprehensive Growth Plan.

On track for making firm proposals including reduction in zoning districts
Staff also noted that nothing yet had been “set in stone” and that it was interested in comments from residents. But they also added that it was well along the track to making some firm proposals. And one was to reduce the number of zoning districts from the present 19 to 6. These would be contained in a specific zoning ordinance relating to Johns Island. Staff said that the City would be split into specific districts each with a distinct set of zoning regulations. This was recognition that one size does not fit all. The Peninsula for example also would have its own set of zoning regulations and which could be different to those defined for West Ashley, Daniel Island, or Johns Island.

Will there be affordable housing? And will it be affordable?
There were few questions from attendees. One noted that high incidence of wetlands and the difficulty of high density construction around wetland areas with the threat of pollution. Another sought more information about affordable housing, its availability and price, questions which staff could not answer at this early stage. Another speaker suggested that some provision be made for the number of people likely to be displaced by development and who would need assistance to stay on the Island. A developer also rose and while applauding the plan of the City noted that “affordable housing” may be well and good, but it may be a dream considering the high cost of land and building materials. And with regulation such as that mandating fire sprinklers in dwellings, the cost will rise even higher.

The final draft will go to the Planning Commission in May, and the City Council in June for final approval.

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