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Council to West of Ashley commuters – Drop dead!
Ordinance changes no set back to Sergeant Jasper project
Marc Knapp

It was bizarre. County Council last night agreed on a sales tax to raise funds for roads and reduce traffic congestion. At the same time, City Council was deliberating and ultimately agreed to a lane closure on the Legare Bridge which will certainly exacerbate congestion on Highway 17 and Folly Roads, two of the main conduits into the City. And the voting districts of three of the seven Council members who voted for the closure are outside the broad West Ashley, James Island Johns Island areas. These areas are the most affected by the lane closure.

Predictably, last night’s City Council meeting was well attended. We’d guess there were over 200 people in the Gaillard Ballroom with more than half motivated by the bike lane issue. The possible conversion of a traffic lane to a bike/pedestrian lane has been before City residents for over a year now and we’ll assume that viewers are aware of the issues. We lost count of the number of citizens that rose in Citizens Participation but it could have been 50 or more. As the Mayor observed, the lines of those wishing to speak never seemed to decline and the time allotted to each speaker was progressively dropped from 90 seconds to 30 seconds. Those speaking for the closure probably exceeded those against, but there was not a large difference. Considering the organization of the bike enthusiasts, we expected their speakers to well outnumber the opponents. We think the large number of opponents reflected the severe pain that the closure has inflicted and now, will again inflict.

Nothing much new was said last night by both sides. Those for the lane cited health, citizens’ rights, connectivity of parks and bike lanes, the need to take cars off the road, pedestrian access to the Ashley River, and the only “slight” slowing of traffic over the bridge as indicated by the County study. Those against the lane closure noted the likely large increase in population in the County and the rising pressure on the roads, the inaccuracy of the County study, that traffic delays could amount over half an hour, the rights of those using cars, the cost of the closure and the power of the DOT to convert the bike land back to traffic. The DOT expects this conversion within the next four years or so as traffic volumes grow in Charleston.

The discussion on Council encompassed these things and more. Many of those that opposed the closure supported bikes and biking, but thought the “cost” of the lane closure was too high. There needed to be a longer term solution and some spoke of new bridges. The Mayor was one of those thinking of new bridges but he said this was a long term solution. We need a shorter term fix and the lane closure was the best option. It would be years before anything significant could be achieved, he said.

The Council members that opposed the bike land were Wilson, Riegel, Wagner, White, Moody and Waring. All apart for Council member White represented districts west of the Ashley and whose citizens will be most affected by the conversion.

We were surprised at the views of Council members Mitchell and Lewis. They said that really it was a County rather than a City issue. Council member Mitchell said too many times that the County was passing the buck and that was not right. The Council members wanted to send the issue back to the County. We think they are wrong. State law requires the City to have an opinion on an issue within its jurisdiction. We think that these Council members were passing the buck particularly as their constituents will be mildly affected at worse by the traffic lane closure.

We confess to opposing the bike lane. The bikers will have their way but at the cost of a lot of pain to commuters in the peak morning periods. And this pain may be more intense in inclement weather. Will it contribute the revitalization of West Ashley as some claim? We doubt it. And a short term solution? It may be a very short term solution as traffic grows sharply with the growth of the County and the DOT converts the lane back to vehicular traffic. We suspect Mayor Tecklenberg will lose a lot of support in the west of the Ashley region over this decision.

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Will the Sergeant Jasper issue ever go away? There were a lot who voiced their opposition to the project last night. But it seems many were wasting their time. Not in those words but the spokesman for the Beach Company and the Mayor sort of said the same thing. The conceptual design of the project was approved by the BAR and the right of the Beach Company affirmed. As Mayor Tecklenberg said, we may not like the project, its mass or height. But that’s it, the Beach Company has its rights and can exercise them. The conceptual plan has been approved, but other approvals will be necessary and assure a quality project.

The issues before the Council last night were a change in the Century V Plan and the approval of the Gateway Overlay Zoning concept. Opponents of the Sergeant Jasper project thought that this was a “give away” to the Beach Company. The Mayor and the Beach Company did not think so. There was a lot of discussion some of which went over our head. But the City felt it was within it bounds to amend the Century V Plan and that the Gateway Overlay was something that could be applied to other areas as well as the Sergeant Jasper site.

Council member Waring proposed an amendment to the Overlay ordinance. It was a long amendment and allowed greater density and concomitant provision of affordable housing. The mention of affordable housing predictably set off Council members Lewis and Mitchell who spoke vehemently, and in the case of Mitchell, too many times last night about the need. It did not matter that some Council members, staff or the Mayor stated that you cannot mandate affordable housing in projects.

The amendment and the Second Reading of the Gateway Overlay ordinance passed. It may benefit the Beach Company but it will be the company’s choice if it wants to conform to the new ordinance. The Mayor stated that a lot of opposition to the Sergeant Jasper project was the inclusion of considerable commercial space. Most folk wanted less and more residential. The Overlay would allow this.

Allow us to be politically incorrect on “affordable housing”. Yes, it is needed and the City should encourage the provision. But a little more thought is needed as to its location. It should not necessarily be in areas where the City has or thinks it has muscle. We think Sergeant Jasper is not the right place. It is prime real estate and should have a prime development. To attempt to impose affordable housing on the Beach Company could effectively restrict the profitability of the project and arguably, take away funds for making the project the best possible Affordable housing should be sited on less valuable property where more can be provided with the funds available. Charleston is a beautify city and people come to see historic buildings and other things. They don’t come to see affordable housing. Let’s help to provide it, but don’t impose it
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Council unanimously approved the change in zoning for the property owned by the State Port Authority on Concord Street. The SPA sought a 56/30 classification. It presently had a 50/25. The Planning Commission reject the request as did the City, but the City has since seen the plans of the SPA and supports the request. Staff believed the Planning Commission would have supported the request if it had seem the plans. The new height area will allow the construction of two towers and in the opinion of staff, the enhancement of the building and area.
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It was well after 10 pm when Council member Seekings drew attention to the time and the weariness of all. He suggested that the Ordinance relating to the Accommodation Overlay and the impact on housing units in the City was important and would entail lengthy discussion. It should be deferred. It seemed Mayor Tecklenberg was happy to proceed regardless. But the mood of Council, indeed everybody, was to the contrary. It was deferred.

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