Charleston is not Disneyworld

Resorts, hotels, golf courses, dining and entertainment, shopping galore and recreation for all!!!

This is the call of two places that share much in common.  Both are major tourist attractions, both see 100s of thousands of visitors a year, both are beautiful and cheerful and set your eyes agog with the veritable rainbow of colors lining their streets.

But Disneyworld was built for tourists.  Charleston was built for and by its people.  Somewhere along the way – it seems that primary distinction has been forgotten.

I do think the city has done a great job at attracting visitors to our beautiful town, and certainly these same visitors provide for many people’s livelihoods and I enjoy their energy and awe.   Our Mayor has had a hand in the injection of life and business in Downtown. And our city has been a stalwart for the protection of our historic and natural integrity, all of which make it the amazing place it is today.  But you know, I feel like more could be done to make Charleston a place for locals and tourists alike, a town that shows the rest of the world, there’s no stopping us.

There are a a few things broke that I’d like to fix.

No, I am not an economist or a city planner, so what gives me the right to make such claims?  Am I just another citizen complaining about the state of things and not doing a thing about it?  I hope not.  Not only have I lived elsewhere, but also I have spent many years in both economic development and real estate in Charleston and have even been exposed to the retail environment given my office on King St, so I know a little bit about a lot.  I’ve listened, I’ve learned, I’ve analyzed and tried to see all sides. I think that gives me a bit of perspective.

Now I know there are many of you who will say, we need money, we need time, or you are crazy and that won’t work for this and that reason.  Well I say – where there’s a will there’s a way and while there is no perfect plan, this is how I see it as a woman madly in love with her town and wants, no, knows it can be even better.

What we don’t need:

Too many national chain stores on King St.  While I think a few of them work well and certainly make life more convenient for me (i.e. I don’t have to drive to the suburbs) the proliferation of them because they are the only ones that can afford the Downtown rent can have some deleterious effects.  Not only does less of their profit go back into the local economy, but also it turns King St into a mall, which doesn’t differentiate it from any other piece of Americana, which doesn’t attract shoppers, which doesn’t sustain the local businesses.  It’s a vicious circle.

What we need:

Lower retail space rents in Downtown Charleston. Now I know everybody’s gotta make a buck and I am all for a free market, but rising rents push local businesses up and out.  Has anyone noticed how the main shopping area of Downtown has slowly migrated over 50 years from Broad St, up to King St, and now to Upper King St?  Will they eventually leave town?  Affordable rent attracts businesses, encourages entrepreneurs, creates jobs, puts money into the local economy and increases the wealth and buying power of Charleston residents.  That’s a positive circle.

What we don’t need:

More $1 million condos Downtown.  I know the price of land is steep in 29401 – it’s the law of supply and demand – but let’s face a grim reality people.  Our economy and jobs can’t sustain the condos we have, not to mention the addition of more.  This is not NYC with Wall Street investment bankers who pull in several million a year at the age of 25 (yes, even still).   This is Charleston, where the largest industry is tourism paying mostly hourly wage jobs.  The median income for the area in general ranges from $35,000-$40,000.  And while we have made leaps and bounds in  the past 10 years in job creation, we are preventing the youthful young professionals from living in our urban core (unless they rent) with the astronomical prices.  There are currently 297 1-2BR condos for sale in Downtown Charleston with an average price of $615,000.  That means, with 20% down, 80% financed at a 6% interest rate, you would have to make about $130,000/year to even begin to afford one of these beauts.  Woah.  That’s a great salary for a 20-year career veteran around here.

What we need:

More affordable housing in Downtown Charleston. And I don’t mean the traditional ‘affordable housing’ – I mean Studio and 1-2BR condos in hip places with a cool vibe, close to work, bike-friendly, green, whatever appeals to the 20-something set and would enable them to strike out on their own.  (Am I wrong in making the assumption that not everyone wants a house with a yard?) Even the 2BR, 1BA 785 sq ft condos at One Cool Blow on upper upper Meeting St, are around $240,000 and no, you probably can’t walk to work – yet.  The 20 and 30 somethings (heck anybody) bring an undeniable energy to wherever they live, because they are passionate, creative, grabbing up life and building their futures.  Don’t we want them to do this in the heart of Charleston?

What we don’t need:

More hotels. Yet. Except for maybe in the ‘up and coming’ areas because they draw other businesses.  The hotel occupancy rate in Charleston runs around 77%, which by most standards is high and something to celebrate.  But do we really need more now that would take away from the existing hotels’ bookings?  Yes a hotel creates jobs and perhaps draws more people to our city – but again, these are the low wage jobs.  Check out the recent Post and Courier article about hotel developments on hold.

What we need:

More businesses. What about taking the same space, the same empty lot that a hotel would be on, and marketing it to businesses around the country (and of course locally) to open up shop in Downtown Charleston?  We’ve got the talent, we’ve got an educated class, we’ve got people moving here in droves (or not moving here even though they want to because they are afraid they won’t find a job) and we’ve got numerous economic development engines like CRDA taking a crack at it.  I’d like to see big name brands, software companies, marketing firms – whomever pays well and contributes to the growth and wealth of our economy.   That way, we have the businesses to supply the jobs to support the professionals who want to live in the urban core and yes, walk to work.

What we don’t need:

More freeways/6-lane roads/car culture.  Yes, I know what you are saying “She’s one of those live green anti-SUV kinda gals”.  I am, sort of.  But forgive me for having lived in NYC and Europe and seeing how well cities there thrive with more than just cars.  I drove down King St and Meeting St yesterday going to and from the grocery store (big shopping day on Mondays) and it took me 15 minutes each way.  To go 1.1 miles.  And why was that?  Because in order to make a turn, I had to wait for throngs of pedestrians to cross the streets. This inability to go anywhere fast did not infuriate me, rather it made me feel smug.   As in – pedestrians and bikes already want to take over Charleston, why can’t we let them? I am not saying eliminate cars, get rid of the roads – we obviously need arteries to transport us in all directions – but does it have to be central to the survival of this town?

What we need:

Enhancement and encouragement of alternate transportation and more facilities and services closer to where we live. While I am lucky enough to live in Harleston Village where there are several little local grocery stores nearby I can walk to that stock the basics – I just couldn’t get the fresh salmon and crab legs there that my husband required for dinner.  So I had to go big – but I should have taken my bike.

Imagine a Charleston with bike lanes along some of the major arteries to make its citizens feel safer?  What if certain areas of Downtown became pedestrian-only ?  What if local zoning ordinances were modified to encourage more of the corner Mom & Pop shops?  What if pedicabs were given free reign to cart our citizens around rather than restricting them to a maximum of 15 out at a time?  What if we had a light rail radiating in all directions and neighborhoods and towns were built around those stops (just like in New Jersey or Long Island).  What if we had an actual water taxi service with accessible docks scattered all over our waterways? (like Vancouver, BC).   What if we tried Rails to Trails like DC or Atlanta?  We’ve got the charm, the zest, the beauty and the grassroots desire to make it happen.  So why isn’t it?   Implementing a vision like this would make us healthier, improve the environment, increase the sense of community, attract visitors and people and businesses, and make us really over-the-top cool.

No my ideas aren’t new or mind-blowing, but I wanted to put it out there in the webiverse. So weigh in.  What else do we need?  What don’t we need?  How can we make it work?  How can we make things happen as a community, as people who frankly, my dear, give a damn?

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23 Responses to Charleston is not Disneyworld

  1. Sean Hughes says:

    Great post. I have a lot of these same thoughts. We are becoming slaves to retail and hotel chain powerhouses as an economy. Charleston is one of the most viable (in real economic terms) cities in the US as we are a member of a very exclusive club of port cities. Ports work in the absence of gasoline, power, etc. and have since the first boats hit the water. Besides the port, the main part of Charleston has been used for business since America was born. There is no reason why smart and cool heads can’t come together to successfully spur and start new industries, businesses and quality of life initiatives that lead to a greater and sustainable Charleston.

    • YES! yes and more yes. If you consider most of the other port cities in the US – they are all powerhouses with thriving economies for both locals and tourists. They are where so many people want to live. NY, Boston, Seattle, Miami, San Fran. What’s stopping us from playing with the big boys while still retaining our culture and charm?

      • Sean Hughes says:

        I’m not sure what the issues are.

        Density-wise we cannot and should not compete with office and residential space downtown with the cities mentioned above because it would kill the soul, history, and architecture of the city. However, there are areas that density rich office and residential spaces are better suited for off of the peninsula such as Mt. Pleasant and North Charleston.

        Transportation wise, I’m of the mind we should take one lane each way of all US interstates and lay rails on it, its already graded, level, and existing right of way. Now, for a viable solution for Charleston =)… I don’t know, I haven’t lived here long enough to understand the dynamics of the system and the needs.

        Retail space owners need to accept the fact that unless they lower rents to a sustainable level they will have an empty storefront or a chain that most people will avoid outside of tourist season out of principal. The current recession is a great reason to lower their prices without losing face to investors.

        Businesses are the life blood of any city, nation, civilization. Not the Wal-Marts, Applebee’s, etc. Entrepreneurs build economies, large corporations and chains plateau them. Both have a place, however, we have tilted so far in one direction that we are choking off the entrepreneurs and small businesses before they can truly get started.

        Lots of work to do indeed. Unfortunately, I do not have many answers in this post to the issues presented. Hopefully after more time here as a permanent resident I can provide some.

        • Sean what if one of the companies that owns a significant amount of retail space downtown offered up a “local business special” of discounted rates with shorter-term leases? (Most require 5-10 years). Obviously I’d want these owners to keep a profit margin, but wouldn’t the good PR and guarantee of filling currently empty spaces more than make up for the reduced rates?

  2. JA says:

    I give this 10 thumbs up…

  3. I work with CARTA on their fixed route committee and they’re constantly tweaking the system. They are hoping to get funding for a Passenger Intermodal center in N. Charleston which will unite Amtrak, CARTA, Taxi service, Greyhound and a connection to the Airport with a large park and ride facility and limited convenience shopping services. This should make it possible to completely reorganize the bus transit system. If the rail project to Summerville (currently without no support in Dorchester County) is ever built, this center is also on that rail line.

    More shelters and new busses are on the way now. Ridership is up this year, though not as much as last.

    Someone in their 20s who is spending huge amounts of a vehicle and parking will have a much harder time paying for the cost of their housing. 600k condos are just delusions waiting on rich, retired people who aren’t coming any time soon, if ever. The Northern Cities and Corporations which produced them in abundance won’t be making nearly so many or paying them nearly so well in the future.

    • William, CARTA has shown creativity and fortitude in the face of ‘no’. Keep up the great work! I hope that rail line goes through so commuters from S’ville can trade their hour plus-long commute for an easy, relaxing 30 minutes while they read the paper and catch up on email.

  4. imabug says:

    couldn’t agree more. these are all things that were needed 20 years ago.

    – planning so that neighbourhoods don’t dump all their traffic onto the same roads
    – bike lanes/routes so that people can ride to places without feeling like they’re risking their lives
    – mass transit that takes people places other than to and from work. CARTA’s routes, aside from being extremely limited, are fine if all you need to do is go from not-downtown to downtown. If you have to go anywhere else, you’re hosed.
    – bridges with sidewalks
    – sidewalks that lead to bridges with sidewalks. Check out the bridges that cross the many waterways around the city. How many of them have sidewalks (even tiny narrow ones). Now how many of those bridges have sidewalks that lead up to them?

    I’m originally from Edmonton AB, which was only slightly larger than CHS is now in terms of population and size when I left in 1996. Edmonton’s network of bus routes and bike lanes and overall walkability meant that I never needed a car to get anywhere (didn’t own my first car until I moved to the US 13 years ago). With the right planning 20 years ago, CHS could have been the same. With the right planning now, CHS can still get there, but it’ll be more expensive. However, I think it will be well worth the cost.

  5. cgi-bin laden says:

    I fear that these changes are nearly irreversible. Only a Katrina-level event can derail the Miami-fication of Charleston. We are victims of our own success. Every Forbes and NYT article singing Charleston’s praises adds to our problem, as does every U-Haul® from Ohio and Atlanta.

    • I don’t think the changes are irreversible though the longer we go without the harder it gets. It’s up to the people to do, change, and demand. And it’s up to the people who hold the purse strings to think creatively. I know we all want to shut the gates behind us, but I do think that the influx of people from other places has added to the diversity and psychology of Charleston. I lived here 15 years ago, left and came back and the attitude has changed tremendously since then, mostly positively I think. Don’t give up!!! Thanks for the comment.

  6. J Walker says:

    Shout it from the mountain tops. I echo most of your sentiments exactly. I’m one who has been singing the praises of Mayor Riley for years. He’s has done more for urban renewal in the downtown than any other southern city mayor that I know of, look at Richmond and you’ll see what I mean. However while Riley has facelifted the city with great parks and facilities, I agree he and the city planners should have taken a long look at the businesses overtaking the downtown area south of Calhoun Street. Politics and business run hand in hand, and I’m certain the reason we have so many chain stores downtown is due to the revenue they can generate. Most of the chain stores however are on King and Meeting, with the Old Market and businesses below Market Street being untouched. Even you said that you enjoy your fair share of chain stores to avoid making trips to N.Charleston and West Ashley. Sometimes it is good to mix the old and the new. We have our fair share of mom and pops downtown, art galleries, tourist destinations, and unique restaurants that give Charleston it’s distinct flavor. The area bordered by Meeting and East Bay from Hassell St to the Battery remains unphased and rightfully never will be challenged. That is the core district for tourists when they come to town. If they were ever to tear that down then locals would have reason to lament. Maybe we need more communities such as Harleston Village and I’ON in Mt. Pleasant where amenities and community involvement are par for the course.

    As far as public transportation, we are lacking in that area. I agree we need less highway and more bicycle trails. I have always been a supporter of a better railroad system that connects the great tri-county area. That might would add some charm to our southern city. If we are going to become a greater eco-friendly (green nation) then we need to start one community at a time, with each community taking charge.

    From our lips or computer screens to the men and women we elect to office. However if we don’t voice our opinions and make ourselves more active in the process then the politicians will move on our behalf and we’ll create an abundance of armchair quarterbacks. Think Globally, Act Locally, and get off your keisters and become involved, especially here in the lowcountry.

    • J Walker- as far as the retail goes – I definitely agree with you. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thrilled out of my mind when the Apple Store came downtown. A mix is good. A mix is necessary. And certainly some of the local businesses weren’t built to be sustainable over the long run – not everyone has the perfect business model. But it’s the rising level of vacancies on King St that concerns me. I’d like to do a count to see what percentage are empty and how that compares to a normal ‘shopping district’. I know on Lower King, the area has been somewhat devastated by the streetscape renewal which has been going on for over a year. Absolutely everyone sees the long term benefit but it’s crushed some businesses (coupled with the economy) and sometimes Lower King feels like a ghost town. Don’t get me started on the Market though – I wish it could be a bit more beautiful and sophisticated and appeal to locals as well. Think the Grand Central Market in NYC or Pike’s Place in Seattle – a place where you can go to get high quality food, flowers and wares (rather than tchotckes) – all provided by local businesses. I just want to build on this incredible foundation we already have you know?

  7. imabug says:

    this is an example of the kind of coverage an effective mass transit system needs to provide

    http://www.edmonton.ca/transportation/ETS_Day_Map_Effective_Junel_28_2009.jpg

    • Incredible map. You are right – it has to be more than just a hub and spoke design and it has to get you there faster, or close to as fast as a car.

      • imabug says:

        I wouldn’t necessarily say faster, but it has to be convenient and reasonably on schedule.

        can the bus take me to my doctor? can i get to the mall/theater/drug store/grocery store/etc? can i take the bus to X (where X is not work)? if I miss the bus, do i only have to wait 15/30 minutes for the next one, or a whole hour?

        that’s the kind of convenience CARTA needs to deliver in CHS for people to use the service for more than just going to and from work

  8. xarkGirl says:

    This is a fantastic, well-written post. Lots of people are thinking along these lines. Maybe our next step is to coalesce, to find the critical mass that makes things start to happen.

    • Thank you! And yes, a critical mass is what we need, people who aren’t afraid of “No”, who are creative and know how to work with the system to get what they want, rather than rail against it and get nowhere fast. People who are willing to walk their talk and take responsibility for accomplishing one task at a time. That’s how we move forward! A bunch of us have gotten together to approach the city with the idea of closing King St for a day or part of a day with the idea of demonstrating that businesses/people/the city can benefit from it. There are many ordinances and costs we are coming up against (i.e. special permits for sidewalk cafes, sanitation and police costs) but it doesn’t mean it can’t be done

  9. steplow says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I lived in/near Charleston until about 20 years ago and I still go back as a tourist (though I prefer visitor, since I lived down there for so long). Every time I’ve been there, I’ve lamented many of the changes and become enamored of others. I remember when college students could rent houses (with roommates) and apartments (by yourself or with one other person). Sadly, that atmosphere of affordable, unpretentious hedonism is long gone.

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  11. Kristen-Great post and great thoughts. I have a few observations to add.

    As a 35 year veteran of life in Charleston, with many years prior to that as a frequent visitor to family here, I do remember when there was a daily train to Charleston from Summerville. As a child I rode one of the last passenger trains out of Summerville.I remember a real diner on King St. [Pete’s Diner (with the best danged pie in the world) and local department stores.

    In the 1970s I was young and single and living on Colonial Lake. I rode my bike to work at Krawcheck’s for Women, the Broad St. Pig, the Tradd St. Laundromat and could take a cab anywhere on the Charleston peninsula for $1. It was a life I loved.

    But there was a lot not to love; overt racism, a small-town mentality, polluting industry and highly seasonal tourism; insular institutions of higher learning and low awareness of Charleston as the paradise it is.

    As you all have cited, these have changed. Some in direct relationship with Joe Riley’s agenda as mayor and some in response to changes in the awareness of Charleston as a great place to live.

    As demand has increased, we’ve seen others who moved from “off” with money in their pockets, differing tastes and who ultimately provided a wider world-view that enhanced life here.

    However, for that enhanced life there was a cost. And we’re seeing the payback now. Back in the early 1990s we just wanted anyone to bring business here. The money was needed and businesses were wanted. The last time the economy was bad (just before the mallification of King St.) in the late 1980s a group of us worked to get storefront art exhibits, just like the ones this year during Spoleto.

    When the Navy Shipyard sailed out of town, there were some who were thinking wisely, but most were glad for any enterprise to come here. We went after the low-hanging tourism fruit. So we got hotels which was great, but as pointed out, don’t pay much. The creative industries (at that time) had not shifted into high gear as they have now. Manufacturing was still a more sought after sector. We were just becoming a service based economy.

    As people with a wider world view came, we saw during that time that rents increased and only national big box stores could afford them; shuttering many local stores below Calhoun.

    The answer now is the local movement. We must put our $$ where our hearts are; spending our way to change.

    If we want more local merchants to be downtown, we need to support those who are local; promoting them, shopping with them. Local merchants have a hard time offering us what we want at the competitive prices of national stores. To support them, we must be willing to pay more for everyday items. Are we willing to do that?

    We can change the course with our wallets, our voices, our votes, participation in Charleston Inspired, and our membership in groups like Lowcountry Local First; The Preservation Society of Charleston; The Historic Charleston Foundation; The National Trust for Historic Preservation and others who seek to cherish, protect, and promote the locavore life we love. We must show up at City and County zoning meetings. They aren’t sexy, but they are where a difference is made. We must make our thoughts heard with our presence, not just our words.

    We must also demand improved performance from schools, students and parents, so that we have the workforce to do the work necessary to attract the jobs we want that pay high wages. My children are graduates of the public education system here. But they were supported every step and pushed to excel. (It’s true-I am a pushy mother…)Schools cannot do it all however, so parents must realize that they are empowered to make a difference and are responsible for doing it.

    Call me an old hippy, but we can’t wish it–we must make it happen with individual activism and commitment just as Kristin suggests.

    • Cheryl, thank you for your thoughts and historical insight that is oh-so-relevant to today. I agree with you that the changes Charleston has witnessed (and participated in) have both a yin and a yang and one cannot exist without the other. I lived here 15 years ago, left and came back, and I can say with certainty that the new perspective that people from ‘off’ have brought with them has done much to inspire the creative, cultural and intellectual mecca that is Charleston. I find attitudes now much more open and honest than 15 years prior. And certainly, the more people who move here, the more who fall in love with Charleston, the more demand there is for every Charleston. We can’t just come here and shut the gates behind us and wish for nothing to change. Many lament that Charleston ‘just isn’t the way it used to be’ but folks, the grass ain’t always greener going back.

      We all need to put our money where our mouths are – for we can only be 100% responsible for our actions and can’t ask government agencies to be the only ones to bend and change. I am thrilled with the new awareness of and commitment to buying local, whether it be food, services, clothing and beyond. I for one, would rather pay an extra buck or two to keep our local businesses healthy and strong, because a rising tide lifts all boats. For example, we can’t expect a place like Blue Bicycle Books to stay in business if we all buy from Amazon or B&N. Why do people go to Applebees or Chili’s when they can choose from any of 100s of fantastic local restaurants?

      I wonder too though, if we aren’t just in the midst of an evolution, where it’s a case of survival of the fittest. Tastes and priorities change and that can mean businesses which thrived before but who haven’t altered their business models or products won’t make it through – and that goes for both local AND national. But perhaps something new and better will rise in its place? Doesn’t a down economy give people the good ole entrepreneurial kick in the ass?

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