Say it ain’t so, Joe! Say it ain’t so! Why does such a lovely, lovable city as Charleston seem so eager to commit civic suicide? It would not be easy. Charleston is healthy and strong. But, sadly, it is headed the wrong way.
Charleston is a city whose historic architecture makes it great. Unlike Providence, whose beauty has been preserved by poverty and inertia, Charleston’s beauty is the result of action taken by civic leaders since 1931, when it passed the nation’s first historic district legislation. For Charleston, beauty has paid off. Its citizenry possesses an unusually intelligent feel for why beauty is good for their city. They recently drove off a proposed new architecture building for Clemson University’s local campus because it did not fit into its historical setting. Smart.
The citizens who participated in that fight were not “anti-development”; rather, they were pro-Charleston. They recognize that a city’s karma can evaporate before anyone realizes what’s going on. In fact, that is what has happened to most American cities, many of which were once lovely in the way that Charleston remains lovely. They did not have civic leaders wise enough to say “No!” to their own local Clemsons. And so ugly multiplied, slowly but surely, yet faster than anyone could imagine. Each incursion of architectural dilution seemed too incidental to drive concern. Eventually, beauty vanished, leaving mere outposts of charm – “museums,” as it were; a nice downtown commercial block here, an imposing historic mansion there – hardly sufficient to generate ambience. Citizens of most cities nowadays try to ignore their built environment and turn a blind eye to design issues facing their communities. Many civic leaders do not even realize their city has lost something vital, or understand that its disappearance has raised an eternal barrier to their city’s health, vitality and prosperity.
Charleston’s historic heritage remains strong, but with WestEdge its civic culture is heading down a problematic policy glide path.
Charleston recently bid a fond farewell to its mayor of 40 years, Joe “Say It Ain’t So” Riley, known for his sensible and creative policies to preserve Charleston’s historic fabric. But Riley, God knows why, supported the ugly Clemson building noted above, and he also supported a new development, a large high-tech mixed-use plan called WestEdge, part of which will undergo design review this week. WestEdge, as currently proposed, will solidify the correlation of forces that over time could strangle the beauty of Charleston.
Though inside the Charleston historic district, WestEdge would fill acres of vacant land near the Ashley River, two blocks or so from the nearest historic neighborhood, with some 4,000 new jobs in medical research and apartments for some 2,500 new residents. Sounds unobjectionable, but it will put huge new pressure on the city’s greatest asset – its historical neighborhoods and their famous houses, whose prices are already unsustainably high. The four buildings in the first phase are scheduled for completion in 2017.
Too bad if that happens. What Charleston needs to meet the challenges of its future is more Charleston – not anti-Charleston environments that each narrow the opportunity to add new fabric as alluring as that which is mother’s milk to its economy. The big idea is to build more places that people really like a lot. That will reduce upward pressure on the value of historic properties in Charleston, and assure that new neighborhoods and developments start at a higher valuation. After all, a historic district is nothing but a regular neighborhood built before the rise of modernist architecture, planning and development. Places that people love are expensive because they are a limited commodity in America. Build more of them. We are not talking rocket science.
The historic fabric of the city represents the most effective “business model” for new fabric. There is nothing about the practical needs of medical research, let alone city living, that requires ugly glass boxes of the sort planned for WestEdge. There is no reason that what Charlestonians (and their visitors) love about the city cannot be, in essence, replicated on the WestEdge site – without sacrificing a single goal of the WestEdge development.
Providence has encouraged much similar development that cuts against its brand, undermining one of its few competitive advantages (its beauty). Unlike Riley in Charleston, the last three mayors of Providence have lacked the insight or the capability to address threats to the character of the city.
Neither WestEdge nor Wexford, the development proposed along the I-195 “Knowledge District” corridor in Providence, will directly threaten their city’s historic fabric. But they will set a tone and a direction for municipal redevelopment policy that will eventually erode their character and create a riptide against the prospect of getting their architectural mojo back.
It is understandable that the developers of research development parks believe that their projects must partake of “high-tech” design. This notion goes back at least a century, when architectural theorists began to assert that the Machine Age required a Machine Age architecture. There was absolutely zero practical or philosophical reason for that. What society got was merely a metaphor of building-as-machine. The implied promise of efficiency was not realized, but remains the central deception of modern architecture.
The architects of today are still laughing all the way to the bank, along with the developers, and they will continue to chuckle into their sleeves as long as civic leaders believe that to move into the future, cities must be made of buildings that look like machines.
Charleston may well be the first city to say no. Its history suggests as much. Will it happen at Wednesday’s BAR meeting? Well, let’s hope the chance of that is better than of your winning the $1.3 billion Powerball lottery. (Still, good luck with that, too!)