Can a derelict community be transformed into a sustainable utopia? A visionary development company working in partnership with the City of North Charleston, South Carolina believes it can.
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. Real estate here is, of course, dear. 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 the same inefficient, 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. Crime and unemployment plague the region, yet a solid base of citizens—many of them African Americans whose families have lived in this area since their ancestors were freed from slavery—has held the community together.
This desolate 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 as one of the first communities of freed slaves, is a walkable community of narrow streets with densely packed historic homes, many with front porches. Small churches dot the neighborhood. Unfortunately, much of this infrastructure is crumbling; the area is badly in need of historic preservation and zoning regulations that would preserve its character.
In the late nineteenth century, the city of Charleston bought a large 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 as the Cold War dwindled, the U.S. government began closing military bases. In 1993 the entire Charleston Naval Base was closed. Gov. Carroll Campbell called it a "nuclear" hit, saying the economic devastation would be twice that of Hurricane Hugo, which struck the region in 1989.
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 with icky smells and smog. To make matters worse, the area’s natural resources were trashed: Natural watersheds that had once absorbed most of the rainfall 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. 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 leaders of the community, now documented in a comprehensive plan that sets forth goals for housing, economic development, natural and cultural resources, and land use. The plan, which will be implemented in five-year increments, 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 3/4-mile waterfront park along the Cooper River that would connect to a 200-acre 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 "living, breathing organs and 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. "Chance meetings along the bikeway and opportunities for public art will be the norm as one travels along the palmetto-lined sidewalks or through a grove of mature pines."
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 outside of Noisette), Knott and his partners understand that the surrounding neighborhoods will play a crucial role. "We will know success when everyone in Noisette realizes that healthy estuarine waters, marshes, and wildlife start with the way we design and manage the upland environments in everyone’s own yard, park, and along roadways," the plan states. "We want everyone to understand that they are stewards of their own environment."
To that end, the company supports the nonprofit Sustainability Institute, which includes a GreenHouse demonstration home, a teaching tool designed to show residents how to create safer, healthier homes. Because most area homes were built in the 1940s, they have inefficient insulation, windows, wiring, and plumbing; many are in need of renovation. At the GreenHouse, residents can see durable, resource-efficient building materials in use and learn about recycling, water and energy conservation, organic gardening, and even various forms of financial assistance for buying and renovating homes.
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 developing products and operations designed along sustainable development principles—will be housed in a studio at the Noisette River Center. The studio will be a place for educational programs, leadership lectures, and certification programs for professional builders and the public—both local and national. Alliance members will be able to test market green products on North Charleston residents, creating a "living laboratory" and placing North Charleston at the cutting edge of the movement toward healthy living.
"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—and by regenerating a community setting that honors and protects the natural world."
For more information, call (843) 302-2100 or visit NoisetteSC.com.
ENN would like to thank Natural Home & Garden (formerly known as Natural Home Magazine) for their permission to reprint this article.