Downtown Charleston vs. Downtown Jacksonville

June 8, 2006 18 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Applying successful urban redevelopment strategies from our neighbor to the North.

Charleston, SC

2005 city population: 115,540
2005 metro population: 594,899

City Description

Established by English settlers in 1670, this community prospered during slavery, survived the civil war and the depression that followed it, hurricanes, urban renewal and even a 7.5 earthquake in 1886 to become South Carolina’s fastest growing central city today. Although tourism drives the economy, Charleston’s port is the country’s 7th largest, the East Coast’s second largest container port and the World’s second most productive, behind Hong Kong. The city is also a major player in Biotechnology and Medical Research. The largest employer is SPAWAR (US Navy Space & Naval Warfare Systems Command) with 7,600 employees.

Learning from Charleston

Charleston definitely has some flaws. A few that stand out include the need for fixed rail transit (perhaps a streetcar line), affordable housing and permanent residents (many snatch up downtown residences for secondary vacation homes). However, although we have a stronger regional economy and are significantly larger in size, there are many things we can learn from our low country neighbor to the north. Here are five, for starters.

1. Parking Signage

You won't have any problems getting around this urban city. There are well-hidden and screened garages everywhere, along with simple directional “P” signs to lead to them. It also helps that garage rates in this vibrant city are $1.50 for the first hour, compared to $3 in Jax.

2. Attractions working together

Take a simple trip to the Aquarium or Patriot’s Point, and you’ll discover that these places encourage visitors to see several other local cultural establishments also. Some even offer joint tickets for a discounted rate. Our local attractions could benefit from a similar type of marketing program. Something where a visitor going to MOSH, also can purchase joint passes to Jax Zoo, The maritime museum, Cummer or even a river tour.

3. Well-designed urban parks

From The Battery to Waterfront Park, this city gets it when it comes to urban park design. The types of uses surrounding a park and how the park complements and interacts with its surroundings is MUCH more important than what type of trees, restroom facilities, and concrete paver patterns should be used in its construction. Charleston’s parks are highly successful because of the restaurants, residences, museums, hotels and galleries that line them, in addition to the fountains, piers and open playing areas. The park earmarked for the Greening of Main could be great enhanced, if we thought more about how it interacts with its surroundings a little more than trying to provide a pretty green space in a sea of surface parking lots.

4. Promoting local history

This is one of a few US cities that have found a way out of economic depression by promoting its rich history and culture. From red beans and rice and She Crab soup to the Charleston single house, its all promoted aggressively, which creates a unique environment that tourist flock to from all over to visit. While urban renewal has stripped our downtown of its former glory, we still have a unique rich history ourselves. Significant historic events include the Silent Film Era, the jazz and blues era along Ashley Street, Houston Street’s red light district, and the Great Fire of 1901 (the third largest in America behind Chicago & San Fransico). When it comes to food, what about BBQ and the local shrimping industry? To make downtown Jax unique, if we can bring these things together, we can easily promote downtown as a unique environment of our own, that can’t be replicated anywhere else in the country.

5. Urban Retail (creating & supporting a critical mass)

King Street is one of the most successful urban retail streets in the South and is something we can look up to. Our local residents will have to do more, if we want to see downtown retail resemble this scene. We can continue to say the city needs to do this and that, but if we, as individuals, don’t make a personal effort to support the existing retail and dining establishments opening in the core, it will never happen. People vote with their feet and right now they’re marching to the St. Johns Town Center.

Downtown Charleston Photo Tour

Francis Marion Hotel, originally built in 1924, reopened in 1996

The recently opened Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge is the longest cable-stayed bridge in the Americas

Downtown’s King Street is home to one of the most vibrant urban retail districts in the South. Major retailers include Saks Fifth Avenue, Urban Outfitters, Pottery Barn and Gucci.

Inside the South Carolina Aquarium, one of several tourist and cultural attractions in downtown

A parking garage takes up the entire first floor of this infill condo project The dark windows are really screens.

Fountain Walk (waterfront specialty shops) and IMAX Theater

The city is famous for the "single house"--narrow residential buildings with gracious side piazzas that dot the restored area.

Residences along Meeting Street (South of Broad)

Completed in 1879 (began construction in 1853), the United States Customs House still stands

Several mid-rise infill projects, like the Concord Cumberland, continue to rise densifying the core.

Waterfront Park is the home of the famed pineapple fountain. The mayor’s office has been looking at it, in preparation of renovating Friendship Fountain

Rainbow Row – a block of mid-1700s buildings along East Bay Street

Southend Brewery in Charleston’s French Quarter District

Broad Street

Antebellum mansions line the famed Battery (White Point Gardens)

North King Street

A view of the city from the USS Yorktown (Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum)