by Bill Davis | News Editor
This past year in West Ashley was supposed to be the moment when a shooter releases the basketball and it begins to take flight, after years of study, planning, and meetings.
And while there were definite successes, like the construction of a soon-to-be-opened senior citizens center near Roper St. Francis hospital, there was one overriding experience: 2018 was a deluge.
The year began with a “Snowpacolypse,” with precipitation continuing into September when Hurricane Florence did a last-minute northern-ly turn, and 2018 ended with a series of rainstorms, the latest one in December, that left no doubt that West Ashley was getting flooded as badly as the peninsula. (AND West Of Free Press went monthly.)
Seriously, Aquaman would have been more at home in West Ashley than would Rhett Butler these past 12 months. West Ashley officially has everything the peninsula has: traffic, expensive housing, and flooding.
And we also have an intensification of political power, with not only the mayor but a U.S. congressman calling West Ashley home.
What will 2019 bring? Let’s take a look into the future at four overlapping issues.
You know the old saying, “caught between a rock and a hard place”? Well, West Ashley is caught between a garden hose and a puddle.
The garden hose is more and bigger rain events, and the puddle is rising sea waters and a percolating groundwater level.
Mayor John Tecklenburg’s biggest challenge has been convincing everyone that he has the flooding issue on lockdown. That he either has a plan, or that he is the man capable of getting a plan put together quick.
But so far, he’s struggled to convince anyone he’s in charge of the flooding. And it gets worse each month there’s a new deluge inundating not only the peninsula, but every neighborhood between Shadowmoss and The Crescent.
That’s not to say he hasn’t tried:
Tecklenburg made it priority one in his state of the city address last year.
He consulted with foreign flooding experts to look into the Church Creek Basin.
He got a drainage study completed, to the applause of all who’ve reviewed it.
He helped push for new and tougher construction ordinances that key on handling runoff water in the basin.
He supported a Church Creek area construction moratorium.
He ushered out the city’s former stormwater czar, Laura Cabiness.
He got the city to join with the feds to buy all the flooded-out homes in the Bridgepoint neighborhood.
He oversaw the splitting of the city’s service department into two offices, with one just focused on stormwater and drainage.
He helped get millions and millions of dollars in stormwater spending added to the current and upcoming fiscal years’ budget.
And yet … doubters persist.
City Councilman Harry Griffin, the wonderboy of local politics whose Shadowmoss-based district has been one of the hardest hit by flooding, is ambivalent.
The mayor has “tried” a lot of things, according to Griffin. “Some good, some bad,” he says. The problem is the plan is not succinct, and yet it still feels like it’s missing parts.
Griffin says the people are never going to believe in any plan until they see some gains with their own eyes, which he puts on Council and the mayor as a unit.
“It doesn’t take a hurricane anymore to flood Charleston,” says Griffin. “To me, that is a failure on all of our parts to protect our people.”
City Councilman Bill Moody holds that it is more important to work with the drainage system that already exists before getting too worked up about future projects. Moody advocates for more “boots on the ground” working shovels and backhoes to clear outflow maintenance as the first move.
Moody has successfully pushed two years running to increase local stormwater taxes to hire more workers, but he still sees problems everywhere in his district. Walking the Greenway near his house with a constituent he kept seeing the boxes where outflow pipes were supposed to be dumping water were instead covered in dirt and trash.
“We have to get more engineers on this instead of bureaucrats,” Moody says. “I’m tired of studying and planning … I want some doing.”
And those engineers need to come up with a regular schedule or clearing all the outflows instead of just responding when one is blocked, he says.
Sometimes the blockage comes in the shape of a resident who doesn’t want to allow government an easement across their property, usually to protect their lawn, he says.
Once these things are tackled, then Moody will call for a study of the current drainage system and its capacities. “There is no reason anyone’s house should flood around here because we have too small pipes or plugged up ditches and outflow.”
Both Griffin and his neighboring city councilman, Marvin Wagner, hail the success of the now-passed Church Creek Basin construction moratorium, saying it gave the city vital time to further study and prepare.
Again, both hail the more stringent new construction stormwater drainage ordinances that were crafted during the time-out. Additionally, city planning director Jacob Lindsey says more drainage solutions to existing neighborhoods will soon be implemented.
Before the city got its latest Church Creek Basin study, Wagner says City Hall “was not real sure how we got here; but now we know how we got here, and that we shot ourselves in the foot.”
“But now we know how to get the bullet out,” he says.
There will still not be a single magic pill to solve West Ashley’s traffic woes in the coming year, outside of money. And planning. Make that two magic pills: money and planning … and consensus. Sorry, make that three.
Anyone in West Ashley who doesn’t complain about traffic must work from home. Rush hours are plentiful and stretch out, nearly overlapping into each other. Still more houses and condos and stores are coming.
There have been big traffic wins in 2018, specifically the redone intersection of Sam Rittenberg Boulevard and Ashley River Road. Yes, traffic still backs up, but it has become more survivable according to Wagner, as well as County Council Chairman Vic Rawl.
Adding more turn lanes there has subtracted a lot of the slow down and anxiety of coming in to town.
But traffic on Savannah Highway and Glenn McConnell Boulevard remains as brutal as before. And that will only get worse as the thousands of housing units in Long Savannah past Interstate 526 start to get built and sold.
Speaking of I-526, what will happen there in 2019?
Rawl, who has been fighting for two years to get the project back on track believes the project to complete the inner-belt is … getting back on track.
“We are going to see the continuation of 526,” says Rawl. This year? “… Eventually,” he says.
“I am fairly confident that the governor is going to get that project back on track, though we won’t see any shovels in the ground this year, but the planning will see a continuation,” says Rawl.
That will be good news — “eventually” — according to City Councilman Wagner, whose district is deeply impacted by traffic.
Wagner believes that “80 to 90-percent” of the rush hour traffic will disappear along Savannah Highway once motorists headed to and from James Island and Johns Island can get where they’re going without exiting I-526 at Savannah Highway or Glenn McConnel.
What Rawl says is also back on track is building a “flyover” exchange at the intersection of Main Road and Hwy. 17 South, where morning commutes and evening returns snarl.
“I’m not sure where the cloverleafs or the flyover are going to be exactly, but discussion of the ‘super lane’ are probably gone,” says Rawl.
No one is quite sure how the “suicide merge” at the intersection of Sam Rittenberg Boulevard and Old Towne Road will be handled. Last month, the county held a public planning forum and arrived at four different plans.
All four focus on a new, enhanced and traffic-lighted intersection at Sumar Street and Sam Rittenberg Boulevard. One of the plans includes extending Sumar Street down to Orange Grove Road, replete along the way with a traffic circle.
City Councilman Peter Shahid says the fourth plan ran into some intense opposition by residents of Sandhurst in December, who were apparently unenthused at shortening commute times at what they perceive is at their neighborhood’s expense.
But now that the county, with its half-
and full-cent local sales tax coffers, is fully engaged, something will definitely happen.
One project that is on life support is a proposed pedestrian/bicycle bridge over the Ashley River alongside the existing bridges there. County Councilman Brantley Moody had taken a lot of criticism for opposing dedicating one of the lanes on the Grace bridge for bike and pedestrian traffic.
He responded last year by getting County Council to commit to $3 million in funding for a standalone bike and walker bridge. However, the total budget for the bridge has risen from $18 million to $22 million, according to some estimates, and may be headed higher the longer it takes.
A big ask — several millions worth —has been made of the federal government by a city that votes for Democrats for the White House for a bridge project that is the darling of, let’s face it, liberals.
In short, romance without finance is a nuisance. West Ashley might fall in love with a project, but if they’re aren’t the dollars for it … well, you get the picture.
One of the methods used in raising money for projects like all of the above has been the creation of TIF zones, or taxation incremental funding zones, where taxes collected from a certain geographical area are earmarked for capital projects in that same area.
Long the hallmark of funding peninsular projects, TIFs have made it across the Ashley River with mixed success. The TIF setup for the Sam Ritt corridor is expected to raise a passel of money.
But the TIF out in the Church Creek Basin is not. “We just don’t have the commercial activity out here,” says City Councilman Griffin. “Ten, fifteen years ago we got the BI-LO shopping center and Walmart … and then what? Nothing,” he says.
Revitalizing West Ashley has turned into the biggest game of dominoes ever. Once Citadel Mall is revitalized then … Once the Sam Ritt intersection is finished then … Once permitting is streamlined … Once the plan for redoing the Greenway is done then ….
A bunch of dominoes will be wobbling in 2019. City Councilman Keith Waring has spearheaded efforts to bring more affordable housing projects to West Ashley. His point is that land is cheaper and so is the existing housing stock than it is on the peninsula.
The city committed $20 million toward affordable housing this fiscal year. Waring says much of the affordable housing opportunities in West Ashley reside in redoing owner-occupied homes and “infill.”
Waring’s version of infill is the city taking over overgrown, abandoned lots that dot neighborhoods and help put affordable housing there.
While Waring says that a “checkerboard” approach to affordable housing is tougher than identifying and building on a single, large plot with tons of units, he stresses that it is not the biggest obstacle in 2019.
That obstacle? The idea that “affordable” housing starts at about $200,000. That results in about a $1,200 monthly nut that might seem tame compared to what middle class families are paying, it is gasp-inspiring among the workforce.
“People think $20 million is a panacea; it is not,” says Waring, pointing to what he considers to be the city’s current building ordinances that have the unintended consequence of only creating “unaffordable housing.
“Look at the number of private people who own rentals and rent to Section 8, which is affordable housing, as a city we have done nothing to throw fertilizer to grow their business, where what we have done things to benefit Wall Street investors and estate trusts.”
City planning director Lindsey says he is working hard at City Hall to streamline the process, in the hopes of making it easier to crack the $200,000 line.
City Councilman Shahid, who heads up the West Ashley Revitalization Commission, says he looks back fondly at the bidding wars for houses back in the late-1990s, when people were fighting for
properties in West Ashley under $125,000.
“Nowadays, there’s not anything for $125,000, and few to little houses under $200,000” in West Ashley, says Shahid.
Now that the county has engaged with reshaping the Sam Ritt/Old Towne intersection, Shahid says the city can look to redo the former Piggly Wiggly lot it purchased that is bordered by both roads and the suicide merge.
“We need to have a public meeting space there … we need to put something there that’s great, as it’s a gateway. That’s huge,” says Shahid.
Shahid says the plan will take more than a year, and that if there can be some sort of commercial development on that 2-plus acre site “then all the better.”
Shahid says another project that could get rolling this year will be the rebirth of the West Ashley Greenway and Bikeway, which is being re-envisioned as a conjoined 13-mile linear park.
In October, the Charleston Parks Conservancy unveiled its draft proposal that would, if adopted by the city, provide the plan and policies for turning rag-tag cut-throughs into an asset that would run the hearts of West Ashley.
Conservancy head Harry Lesesne says once his organization finalizes the plan, it will be presented to City Council later this month or in early February. Regardless, plans to redo significant intersections between the paths and major roads will begin this year.
And perhaps the most enigmatic revitalization project is happening at Citadel Mall. Developer Richard Davis has been invited by the city to present his plan, says Shahid, but has yet to do so.
The understanding is that once Davis presents permission from the city to proceed with his epic vision for the overhaul, he can begin in earnest. So far, Davis has already landed a coup of a tenant when MUSC announced it was going to build an ambulatory hospital in one of the moribund department store footprints.
But what the final plan will look like is still unknown as Davis has kept everyone waiting like his last name was Godot.
When Davis does unveil his master plan, it will make a splash. Speaking of splashes, it will be interesting to see how far the proposal to build a municipal indoor natatorium/wellness center near the mall can get.
And Finally …
No discussion of West Ashley’s future, in 2019 and beyond would be complete without a look at its political leadership.
It’s roughly year three of “It’s Our Time,” with West Ashley resident Mayor John Tecklenburg entering the second-half of his mayoral tenure. We still hold a plurality on City Council, with a majority of its members representing a sliver if not a swath of West Ashley.
Tecklenburg officially announced his candidacy for mayor last month. It is unknown how many candidates he will face in his upcoming re-election campaign. Tecklenburg defeated state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis (D-West Ashley) in a runoff last time. Stavrinakis declined comment when asked last month if he intended to run again.
Since becoming Charleston’s first mayor in 40 years not named Joe Riley, Tecklenburg has had some missteps and failures, to go along with several successes. One of the missteps was the revelation that he’d mismanaged money from an elderly woman whose estate he was helping manage.
As Tecklenburg paid the money back, it has yet to be seen if he damaged his viability as a candidate going forward, according to Gibbes Knotts, the chair of the Political Science department at the College of Charleston.
Knotts says for sure that the “throw the bums out” mentality that overtook Mt. Pleasant’s last municipal election cycle that saw the mayor lose her office and huge turnover on Town Council, does not exist in Charleston at the present time.
Knotts says to expect a black candidate from the peninsula to run for the office that could pose a serious threat to Tecklenberg’s re-election.
West Ashley’s power rating surged this year as local Joe Cunningham became a member of the U.S. Congress. Cunningham surprised the country and defeated Summerville Republican Katie Arrington in a heavily GOP congressional district to take Mark Sanford’s former seat, whom Arrignton beat in the primary.
With the concentration of political power in the Lowcountry, and not just in Charleston, residing currently in West Ashley, 2019 could see a lot of good things coming our way … Let’s hope.