MOUNT PLEASANT — The town’s latest attempt to restrict housing and apartment development by slashing the number of residences that could be built above businesses is misguided and will only create more sprawl according to real estate interests.
Town Council members say the pending change in land-use rules would block high-density developments that could overcrowd schools and increase traffic while also providing incentives for more affordable housing.
The curious thing about Mount Pleasant’s proposed zoning change is that it targets a rule that’s existed for decades but has only been used once, for the 41-building Shelmore Village development in 2006. It’s a development of townhouse-style three-story buildings, with commercial space on the ground floor and two-story homes above.
The rule that allowed Shelmore Village permits development of 12 residences per acre if they are built above first-floor businesses with street frontage in a commercial area. The town’s proposal is to cut that number to four residences per acre, or eight if half of them meet price and income guidelines to count as attainable housing.
“It was brought up probably a year ago, that they (Town Council) wanted this changed and reduced because it wasn’t consistent with the Comprehensive Plan,” said Michele Reed, the town’s Director of Planning, Land Use and Neighborhoods. “The conversation has morphed, and now it’s about getting more attainable housing.”
Real estate professionals and the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce oppose the change.
“We’re encouraging sprawl by removing the density in these areas and transferring it to the outskirts,” said Josh Dix, representing the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors, at a Jan. 10 Town Council meeting where the rule change received initial approval.
Council members expressed concern that continuing to allow 12 residences per acre above shops in commercial areas could have negative impacts.
The town previously approved sharp reductions in number of residences that could be built in two large commercial areas known as “redevelopment centers” when those areas are some day redeveloped. The changes for those 452 acres of land require that when redevelopment takes place, the result will be fewer homes and apartments than currently exist.
That change, and the proposed one for homes above stores, followed adoption of the town’s Comprehensive Plan.
“Schools are full, and overcrowded,” said Councilwoman G.M. Whitley. “Yes, people have property rights, but we have rights as a council to control zoning.”
The town already prohibits new apartment and condominium developments under a 2021 moratorium that will soon expire, and it also has a strict permit allocation system that currently has no permits available for multi-family development. Both measures were aimed at slowing the rapid development and population growth the town has experienced.
The proposed zoning change includes incentives to create “attainable” housing, which many council members agree is needed.
“I’d like to see our first responders be able to live in this town,” said Councilman Carl Ritchie, Mount Pleasant’s retired police chief.
Developers say the town’s proposal requiring that half the residential units be affordable in order to build eight units per acre instead of four, is unworkable.
“In order to really look at providing some type of attainable housing purely through the private sector you need scale, and density,” said Daniel Doyle, chief operating officer and director of development for The Beach Company.
He said regardless of whether the limit is eight or 10 or 12 residences per acre, expecting developers to make half of them “attainable housing” units won’t work.
“The cost to build a market-rate unit is the same as the cost to build an attainable unit,” Doyle said. “You’re not going to be able to cover those costs with a one-to-one ratio.”
He pointed out that other cities typically require 10 or 20 percent of units to meet affordability guidelines when they approve large new developments.
“If 10 units were market rate you could potentially have two that were at affordable rates,” said Dix.
Town Council members gave first approval to the zoning change at the Jan. 10 meeting, but several said they expect that plan to change before final approval that could come in February. Mayor Will Haynie and councilmen Howard Chapman and John Iacofano voted against the measure in a 6-3 decision.
“The main issue I have is that we have to have affordability put into this,” said Haynie. “I think the private sector is the only way Mount Pleasant is going to get any attainable housing.”
Unlike Charleston, Greenville, Rock Hill and other cities, Mount Pleasant has not spent more than a token amount on affordable housing efforts and has few incentives. A privately developed, unsubsidized condominium community at the north end of town where units sold for nearly $300,000 three years ago is considered the town’s largest success with attainable housing.
“What’s been proposed is not going to get us any more attainable housing, because there aren’t sufficient numbers,” Chapman said.
Haynie said he could consider a plan that allows 12 units per acre above stores in commercial areas, if half were attainable housing. Whitley said she also might be open to that, so long at it’s a one-to-one ratio with long-term affordability.
Doyle and Dix have said it would be all but impossible to create below-market housing in such a scenario.
Other members of council were more focused on density, the number of homes per acre.
“The way I’m looking at this is, residential in commercial (areas) is a privilege,” said Councilwoman Brenda Corley. “I don’t know why we are compromising, or feeling pressure to up those numbers, because residents don’t want more density.”
Iacofano said reducing the density “just puts a halt to affordable housing we truly need.” But there’s no evidence that market-rate residences built above stores in Mount Pleasant would be particularly affordable.
At Shelmore Village the homes that were built above shops 13 years ago are as large as many single-family homes, and buildings in the development now sell for more than $750,000. When the residences are for rent, they can rent for more than $3,000 a month.
The concept of residences above businesses is an old one, and remains common on busy downtown streets such as Charleston’s King Street. The Shelmore Village development in Mount Pleasant was slow to catch on when first built, then the Great Recession of 2007-09 drove the development into foreclosure before it was revived under a new owner who sold the buildings for about half their original asking price.