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Shrimp n' Grits

Charleston’s fate – Emerald City or Brigadoon?
Lee Walton

For the past several days, Charleston has not been a place for weary locals planning a quiet, restful weekend or tourists hoping to spend a few secluded days in a quiet little B & B on the Peninsula. With nine headline events crowded into a single weekend blessed by the clear blue skies of a typical Lowcountry spring, Charleston was overwhelmed with tens of thousands of cars packed with outdoor enthusiasts of all sorts and descriptions seeking out their own forms of gratification and fulfillment. With the predictable “…traffic jam and parking deadlock facing everyone…”and “…the horde of people and cars expected to muddle through Charleston…” the Lowcountry is rushing headlong toward a tipping-point where the “Angels and tennis and grits, oh my!” of last Saturday’s Palter and Chatter headline will irreversibly become the “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” of Dorothy’s Kingdom of Oz.

Sadly, notwithstanding the current recession’s tempering of the local deal-estate development juggernaut, it’s not just the endless string of busy, festival packed weekends any more. The whole Lowcountry’s transportation infrastructure is on the verge of exceeding its physical carrying capacity every day of the week. For those who doubt just how bad things are, try getting through the US-17S and Main Road, Maybank Highway and River Road, or James Island Expressway and Folly Road intersections between 5:00 and 6:00 on any weekday evening. Just pick any major intersection on Ashley River Road from the Ashley Bridge to Bees Ferry – they’re nearly grid locked every morning and afternoon. One accident often snarls traffic for hours on any of these major thoroughfares. Don’t even think of crossing the Peninsula on Calhoun during the mid-day break between classes at the College of Charleston, and when the all-too-frequent cruise ships are in town, don’t dare brave East Bay from Broad to Columbus Street. East Cooper and North Charleston aren’t immune either; they’re suffering the same escalating traffic snarls or worse.

So what’s the answer? One thing’s for sure – it’s not CARTA. In the deepest recession in nearly a century, these lumbering, fume-spewing behemoths are still as empty as ever. During the busiest weekends and at the height of weekday business hours, DASH bus occupancy on the Peninsula is embarrassingly pitiful! Notwithstanding the shrill predictions of a few local politicians, people are not leaving their cars at home and hopping on public transportation. Even with gasoline inching back toward three dollars per gallon, Lowcountry commuters are still willing to brave the horde of cars each day as they struggle to and from work. It’s an ingrained automobile-based commuter lifestyle that will take decades of changing economic conditions to alter significantly.

On the Peninsula, parking during the past decade has become nothing short of a daily nightmare. Some brilliant young city planner, fresh out of some progressive little northern yuppie community, sold Charleston’s self-proclaimed, brilliant, world-class visionary mayor on the idea that if zoning were changed to slash off-street parking requirements, commuters, tourist, and city condo dwellers would flock to CARTA. Collateral infill redevelopment would surge and stuff the city’s bulging coffers with building permit fees, property taxes, and various and sundry user fees. The results of this rose-colored hallucination have caused a Peninsula parking deficit fiasco. Everybody still drives their cars, but few can find a place to park. Shopping downtown is a bummer, King Street shops are shutting like morning glories in the hot sun, and making a business meeting on time below Calhoun requires the logistical planning of the Normandy Invasion.

Last Sunday’s Palter and Chatter lead editorial, “Downtown Task Force must eventually advance past talk”, hit fairly close to the mark. However, the “delicate balance” that Mayor J. Pericles Riley so often espouses is nothing more to him than another lever to be pulled behind the curtain of his Emerald City. His promises of “balance” and “mid-course adjustments and corrections” are only platitudes to buy time to intimidate, isolate, or placate his opposition.

Meaningful balance reached through honest deliberation and respectful consensus is the key to Charleston’s future, and it must be found quickly or we will surely loose forever the peace, tranquility and enchantment that are quickly slipping away.

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