As developers swoop into the upper peninsula to save us from our own growing pains, every few years we see a new master planned community to complement and embrace the historic fabric of Charleston. The latest iteration is a planned development of the uninhabited Laurel Island along the banks of the Cooper River. A 160 acre island that once served as the city landfill, and before that a railroad terminal, and before that a plantation, now sits completely vacant with waterfront views of the Ravenel Bridge soaring over the Cooper River. Developers wish to name this the Lorelei Project, harkening to a German folklore of a beautiful sea maiden who enchants sailors to run their ships aground.
This should be interesting.
The Plan for Laurel Island
Ohio-based North American Properties describes a mixed-use development of residential and commercial properties on the currently industrial zoned land. Plans for a hotel, office space, and a waterfront entertainment venue will accompany retail and restaurant space. Elements of walkability are to be incorporated into the district, including a network of biking and hiking trails; there will also be parking facilities planned from the start as well as boat access from the Cooper River.
A to-be-determined mix of residential space in the Lorelei Project would clock in somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 units. These will be a blend of single-family homes, condominiums and townhouses, apartments, and possibly student housing and senior living facilities. North American Properties managing partner Mark Toro promises a range of property values; while a number of homes will be designed for the luxury buyer, a significant portion will be geared for affordability. “It runs the gamut from all types of residential products, and it’s really a matter of us studying the market to see where the demand is,” Toro says. “We’ll seek to serve the broader community, because we believe there is a dearth of workforce housing opportunities.”
A Look to the West
Considering similar projects completed by North American Properties, we can speculate how they will apply their experience to the unique character of Charleston. Established in 1954, the company has developed retail and residential projects in ten states; as a case study, let’s take a gander at Atlantic Station, a 138 acre mixed used development near Midtown Atlanta.
The site of a former steel mill that operated into the 1970s, Atlantic Station tells the story of a polluted brownfield-turned-green: now a walkable district where residents can live and work near shops and restaurants they frequent, with ample transportation options to keep the area easily accessible to other parts of the city, all while mitigating the urban sprawl, gridlocked traffic, and air pollution that have become notorious to Atlanta. Energy efficiency was baked into the design of Atlantic Station’s built environment as well, with many structures achieving LEED certification.
Consisting of three distinct sections, Atlantic Station has become a town within a city. The District on the east end serves as the nexus of activity: a pedestrian-friendly outdoor mall, with a bustling retail and restaurant scene surrounding a large courtyard. Above the ground level shops are residential condominiums, with ample office space serving a thriving commercial district. Trailing to the west are The Commons, a residential area of condominiums, townhomes, and apartments, built around a large pond that serves for stormwater mitigation. At the westernmost portion of Atlantic Station, The Village consists of two apartment complexes and Atlanta’s IKEA store.
A Charleston Translation
How would a project of similar scale to Atlanta’s Atlantic Station appear on the Cooper Riverfront of the Charleston upper peninsula?
First, eliminate those skyscrapers from the background, and never speak of them again. Existing plans for the Upper Peninsula Initiative incorporate height limits, although they are considerably more flexible than those in the city’s historic district. Subtract the financial towers that define Atlanta’s skyline from its perimeter, and most of Atlantic Station is about on the scale of Charleston’s upper peninsula: mostly three to four stories, up to eight max. Street levels engage pedestrians with shops and restaurants, while the upper floors house condominiums, apartments, or office space. A well-planned mixture of building heights lends visual interest to the skyline, much like the carefully designed, multilevel Charleston Place Hotel was surgically inserted into an entire city block of historic King Street.
Second, just as the buildings of Atlantic Station harken to the area’s steel mill past, let’s hope that the architectural design of the Lorelei Project would incorporate elements of historic Charleston architecture with its diverse European influences. While mimicking the streetscapes of Charleston would have a Disneyland effect, new construction can instead be complementary to the days of old. For inspiration, look to Daniel Island: a downtown urban center developed in the 2000s, and itself a riverfront community. During its development, architectural elements of old Charleston were borrowed and combined with modern urban structure, allowing for abundant outdoor space.
One notable difference would be that Daniel Island’s riverfront is dominated by stately single family homes with deep water docks, whereas we can presume that the Lorelei Project would have a more urban riverfront. Which brings us to…
Third, the riverscape scene that defines the backdrop of Laurel Island should be fully incorporated into its layout and building design. Acre by acre, Charleston has been reclaiming its waterfront property from the industrial age, and the Lorelei Project presents an opportunity for a leap forward in that regard. Connect the walkways and bike paths to a robust river-facing commercial district, complete with waterfront dining, open patios, and a courtyard concert venue. On the upper floors are luxury condominiums with million(+) dollar views of Charleston Harbor designed with beautiful reflective (low-e!) glass that mirror the sunlight glimpsing through the surface of the Cooper River. Imagine Waterfront Park with its wide promenade, then add the bustling activity of Market Street and a (less sandy) version of Patriot’s Point.
Representatives of North American Properties and their prospective partners continue to solicit input from Charlestonians regarding the planning for the potential Lorelei Project. And thankfully, the ideas of previous developers have been laid to rest, such as the one that would have created yet another resort. Perhaps the song of Lorelei sang those ships to their doom.
Much appreciated is the acknowledgement from these developers that Charleston desires to be a diverse, progressive city that remains confident and steadfast in its roots. As Mr. Toro stated, “We are not building this for us. We are building it for the next generation.” This is a song that I suspect will be well-received.