Can This City Be Greened? Charleston, South Carolina

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These rusty rails are one portion of a rails-to-trails strategy within Noisette, which will include lanes for running, walking, and riding bikes and will be illuminated for safety and beauty at night.
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The Noisette development plan proposes to use ecologically sensitive native and ornamental landscaping in open, vegetated swales for stormwater conveyance.
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North Charleston, which was cut off from the Cooper River because of industrial and military development, now has the opportunity to reconnect via Riverfront Park—a venue for picnics, boating, and fishing.
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The City Center district, which includes taller, mixed-use buildings for restaurants and shops, will be served by mass transit. Here, buildings will recycle water and waste materials and meet stringent performance standards.
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An abandoned rail line in the proposed Noisette Preserve offers a potential connection to the new trail system.
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Charleston, South Carolina, is a colonial city steeped in tradition. Its narrow, winding cobblestone streets have been well worn by centuries of traffic; nearly every building in the historic district boasts a ghost or two. Charleston’s charm lies in its densely packed, architecturally significant houses; its made-for-pedestrian byways; its accessible harbor. Yuppies pay six figures for newer waterfront condos, and if you have to ask about the price of an eighteenth-century townhouse–well, chances are you can’t afford it.

Just seven miles to the north–and a world away–in North Charleston, bland, inefficient tract houses surrounding the former Charleston Naval Base can be had for less than $100,000. Here lies evidence of the mid-twentieth-century building boom at its worst: blocks upon blocks of single-story houses along wide, forbidding streets. There are few professional services, and access to the Cooper River–which drew lots of folks here in the first place–has been choked off by industry and a petroleum tank farm.

This patch of fifty-eight square miles is a tale of booms and busts–and evidence of the glory days remains. Liberty Hill, established in 1871 by freed slaves, is a walkable community of narrow streets and historic homes, many with front porches. Small churches dot the neighborhood. Unfortunately though, much of this infrastructure is crumbling; the area is badly in need of historic preservation.

In the late nineteenth century, the city of Charleston bought a chunk of land along the Cooper River to build a grand public park designed by the famed Olmsted Brothers. However, in 1901, when the U.S. Navy came calling, the park was sacrificed to build the base. Much of North Charleston sprang up around this epicenter; the base employed tens of thousands at the height of World War II, but in 1993 the entire Charleston Naval Base was closed. Gov. Carroll Campbell called it a “nuclear” hit.

The New American City

The base’s closing compounded the problems of a community already beset by challenges, including higher-than-average unemployment and lower-than-average education and income. Home ownership was low; crime was high. Heavy industry and petroleum processing choked the air. Natural resources were trashed; watersheds had been cleared and paved. Stormwater runoff caused flooding and degraded water quality, and most upland systems were overrun with non-native weeds and grasses.

Yet developer John Knott, who had recently spearheaded Dewees Island off the Charleston coast, saw pure potential.

Knott fixed his sights on the vacated naval base and surrounding neighborhoods, envisioning a community based on the triple bottom line–a balance among people, planet, and prosperity. He formed the Noisette Company (named for a creek in the area) and partnered with the City of North Charleston on the Noisette Project, a billion-dollar, 3,000-acre, sustainable redevelopment plan that includes 350 acres of the former Charleston Naval Base. The Noisette Project is the one of largest urban reclamation projects ever to be undertaken in the United States–and it leaves the area poised on the verge of another boom. Real estate prices in North Charleston have increased 35 to 100 percent in the past two years.

Seeking to meet the “economic, functional, aesthetic, social, and spiritual needs” of the North Charleston community, the Noisette Project is the result of a five-year discovery process that included citizens and community leaders now documented in a comprehensive plan that sets forth goals for housing, economic development, natural and cultural resources, and land use. The plan calls for 7,000 new housing units, 5,000 rehabbed houses, 10 million square feet of new retail space, and, at the former naval base, a park and urban preserve.

In a New Urbanist sort of way, the ambitious plan addresses issues of scale, streetscape, and density, allowing for livelier sidewalks and more mixed-use development. Its launch point is a City Center district on the former naval base, home to cultural and recreational amenities, a conference and research center, and a historic residential area.

Referring to the area’s natural resources as the “heart of the community,” the plan calls for habitat restoration, stormwater management, and recreation corridors. Reconnecting people to the Cooper River is key. “The vision of Noisette is to create a sense of place where one can access the river either on foot or bicycle, through a series of connected greenways,” the plan states.

While the Noisette Company is responsible only for developing the 350 acres of former naval base that it has purchased (the city and private developers will develop an additional 2,600 acres ), Knott and his partners understand that the surrounding neighborhoods will play a crucial role. To that end, the company supports the nonprofit Sustainability Institute, which includes a GreenHouse demonstration home. At the GreenHouse, residents can see durable, resource-efficient building materials in use and learn about recycling, water and energy conservation, and organic gardening.

Noisette has also pulled together the Noisette Urban Alliance, a fifteen-member network of corporate manufacturers that will assist in the district’s sustainable development. The alliance of companies such as Herman Miller, Interface, and Kohler–all committed to sustainable development principles–will be housed at the Noisette River Center, a place for educational and certification programs for professional builders and the public–local and national. Alliance members will test market green products on residents, placing North Charleston at the cutting edge of the green movement.

“The early movers have always been the ones to show us what is possible by doing it,” says Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface. “Noisette ‘does it’ this time by bringing the principles of sustainable development to the people of North Charleston, along with the manifold benefits–healthier homes, schools, shops, and offices.”

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