Board of Zoning Appeals (City of Charleston)

I attended a Charleston City Board of Zoning Appeals meeting recently. It was held in the public meeting room at the Gaillard Center Municipal Building. There were four board members (Leonard Krawcheck, Michael Robinson, Margaret Smith, John Lester) and three staff members (Lee Batchelder, Pennye Ashby, and Vanessa Ellington) present. The audience consisted of roughly thirty people, a larger meeting than I anticipated it to be. . The agenda consisted on only one point of business concerning a property within the west side of Charleston on 721 King Street. Those applying for the appeal wanted to convert the ground floor of their office building into a restaurant with 1,750sf for inside patron use and 400sf of outside use, without providing required off-street parking spaces.

Discussion of this site took well over an hour. It began with an employee of the applicant business, Urbs LLC, giving a presentation of their plan for the restaurant addition underneath the existing office. In order to conduct this reconstruction, a special exception under Sec. 54-511 would have to be granted. Charleston is full of atypical structures that do not fit the normal standards, and this employee was trying to persuade the council that 721 King was just another case. He brought well thought out presentation boards and wore a nice suit, but his theoretical land use initiative was missing one factor- input from the locals.

This was a major contrast to what came next. After his presentation, community members were asked if they had any comments to add. At least seven people from the audience stood up and voiced their unsupportive opinion of the restaurant addition. The first man, a resident of 1 Race Street, complained that it would negatively impact his community because of the limited parking. A pregnant woman from 9A Race Street also said that this would put a strain on the area. She claimed that she already had to park blocks away from her house due to the congestion in automobile circulation. When carrying groceries and small children home after a long day of work, the last thing anyone wants to do is make a long trek home. The woman talked about her elderly neighbor who rarely leaves her house since she is afraid to have to park her car on a street that isn’t her own. She expressed love for her neighborhood, saying that her family is proud of the build up of businesses and restaurants she has seen over the past five years. There are just practical issues of residents that need to be factored into this now booming area.

The neighborhood association president spoke next, and passionately discussed his interest to preserve the block. He hoped that residents would not lose the sense of contentment and intimacy they feel towards their neighborhood because of Charleston’s obvious gentrification up King Street. It is detrimental to have residents and patrons of these businesses fighting over their claim of the space. Traffic not only blocks in residents, but also the bus stops nearby.

The zoning board members discussed the parking issue amongst themselves. One by one they agreed to disapprove the motion. What stood out to me the most about this meeting was community involvement that comes with projects like this. Businesses want to come in and strictly make money. I mean in our capitalist society, isn’t that all people live for? It is when individual’s lives are negatively altered and inconvenienced that issues arise. This area is not just a developmental gold mine for urban planners; it is where dads teach their kids to ride bikes and the aging live out their last peaceful years. Space has meaning attached to it, and urban planning should heavily involve the people it affects in order to maintain positive social sustainability.

Sustainability and Media Corporations

Just like all things American, media has fallen to the corporate system. The current disposition of the media world has been heavily influenced by federal policy. Before the Telecommunications Act of 1996, America saw upwards to fifty major media companies. The passage of this piece of legislation, initially intended to serve as a check on the accuracy of media corporations, led to an unintended consequence of major company buyouts. Today we can count the number of media outlets on two hands.

America’s foundation is built on democracy, rights, and freedom. The conglomerate media system is counterproductive to these ideals. There are less voices and opinions when few are in charge of what and how information is shared to our country’s people.

If analyzed through the lens of sustainability, we see many problems that arise from the very nature of having media outlets funneled down to only a few major companies and individuals.


With the lack of competitors, big media is given the space to focus on money and profit over general public interest and quality services. If there are limited alternatives, media consumers will be forced to pay the prices set by these monetary-driven, impersonal corporations.


We have seen politics stick its greasy fingers into the monopoly of large media business. Rupert Murdoch, one of America’s most famous media tycoons, is a proud supporter of the Republican Party and has donated millions to certain news groups. In return, they are obligated to have a biased towards the red. Another important social factor is the lack of diverse correspondents and news coverage relating to women and minorities.


As the conglomerate system of media becomes more of a norm in our society, Americans have tended to put local news on the back burner. Depriving our country’s people of varied opinions and unbiased facts may lead to a narrow-minded, numbed society. It is not a community-based system and does not support social solidarity. This could be detrimental to environmental advocacy and education amongst the masses, and we will initially encounter these negative effects at a local level.

Buyer Beware

A central theme of American’s economic and cultural disposition is always wanting more. This dissatisfaction with minimalism and basic needs has put a strain on our environment. Fueled by the Industrial Revolution, we became focused on consumerism and the collection of stuff. The environmental movement of the 1960’s allowed buyers to analyze the impact of their purchases and begin to think more sustainably.

Modern day environmentalism reflects the trendy “go green” lifestyle. Now more than ever, we see buyers with heightened awareness of the environmental aspects of consumerism, so the quality of products has been pushed to increase. In fact, we have recently developed this fetishized need for organic, pesticide free, non-GMO green items.

We have become so separated from the food we put in our bodies, mainly because of the systematic bureaucracy that is our current agricultural industry. There has been an increase of Americans who do not want to give up the convenience of processed food and chemical ridden household items, but would pay a little more for something that they think is the healthier option. Major players in the consumer industry have been able to monopolize on and control the supply of certain items.

These companies began to realize the attractiveness of a green label and capitalize on the vulnerability of the customers. We have more recently become aware of a trend in product quality called greenwashing, which is when a company advertises its items as eco-friendly, when in fact they are far from it.

A style of greenwashing that can be seen heavily within the food industry is through visual deception. The green movement values a type of frontier ethic where there are limitless pastures and resources in rural America, scattered with small family farms, pesticide free agriculture, and little pollution. This is obviously not reality. However, as we shop in our congested urban areas, sometimes Americans cling to anything we believe to be healthy. We are enticed by pictures of red barns on meat packaging and egg cartons, and also words such as “CFC-free” and “all natural”. These companies give us a false perception that they are looking out for the best interest of the consumer and our environment, and this captivates us. Not only are these businesses misleading us to believe these products are eco-friendly, they are continuing to overcharge for them.

We have become a society so numbed by consumerism, that a disconnect has formed between us and the products we use on a daily basis. This gives big business room to take advantage of the market and present items as they choose. We are blind customers, willing to pay for anything. In order to combat against greenwashing, consumers around the country must become further educated and start consciously reading labels.



Sustainable Urbanism

It’s crazy to think that cities as we know them today are systematically different than they were even 100 years ago. During the 1960’s especially we saw a major shift in urban areas. As the automobile became widely used and aspects of war affected families, Americans jumped on the band wagon of suburbanism. They valued living in the quiet country as a form of escapism, and also as a way to rebuild their family structure in a peaceful environment. This trend caught on extremely fast, and if you had the money you could have a nice home in a suburban community erected in less than a month. This is the mindset behind how many of these neighborhoods were built- quickly with few, cheap materials.
In the last fifteen years we have seen another shift. Now Americans want to live in the city center again, surrounded by the hustle and bustle, so urban areas have been straining to support these new residents. This trend is only increasing, and in thirty years a majority of us will live in one of twelve major hubs in the United States. So how can we plan for this influx of people in order to save the integrity of the area? Cities have a need for a new comprehensive plan including aspects of transportation, housing, job opportunities, and tourism. An overarching theme of these master plans is sustainability.
One way we can implement sustainability is by utilizing the abandoned suburbs I discussed earlier. In order to divert a large portion of Americans from moving to overcrowded cities, they must have access to an area that gives them everything a city center could offer. Through an idea called “retrofitting suburbia” there is potential to give some TLC to those smaller cities and neighborhoods that were lost in our turn of the century urban flight. This plan allows developers and city planners to reestablish an area that has existing structures, but no draw.
City centers offer many aspects that millennials are intrigued by. Some of these include an awesome job market, mixed use housing, and strong community involvement. Retrofitting aims to integrate these components to a suburban area with hopes that people would want to move there; featuring compactness, connectivity and multiple transportation options, diversity, and cultural relevance. Developers will take abandoned box stores or malls and convert them into mixed use structures. There will be bike and car sharing programs implemented. A new town center will be established as a grounds for community gatherings and events. Green space will allow people to get outside and enjoy their city. Energy/water saving technologies will be used.

Retrofitting is a great way to ensure that our country can sustain us in years to come. However it will take a shift in cultural norms and a greater overall mindset which focuses on environmentalism. Let’s work to save our cities!

Critique of the West Ashley Farmer’s Market

As we have learned in class, the food industry plays a major role in environmentalism. Since the turn of the century we have seen some progress concerning sustainably produced agriculture. One enclave of this movement is the widespread popularity of Farmer’s Markets. Specifically in Charleston, we have a major market that sets up in Marion Square on Saturdays during the season. The city’s Parks and Rec department recently noticed that expansion of the market might be beneficial, so this past November, West Ashley hosted its first trial Farmer’s Market. It was to be held in Ackerman Park (which is a block from my house) on Wednesday evenings from 3:30-7:30.

I attended the market every week for a month and a half, mainly to purchase my supply of fresh fruits and vegetables, but I also intended to ethnographically observe the West Ashley Farmer’s Market. I was curious about the who, what, and how of establishing a new market in a suburban community.

From week to week I saw an eerie consistency to the market. A majority -mainly all – in attendance were white, of middle-class, wearing nice business clothes, pushing strollers, carrying dog leashes, and meeting up with others of similar status. There were only two stands with fresh produce from local farms. The other stands offered products with added preservatives, such as jams, pies, and sauces. Most of the booths were corporate companies serving prepared foods, like Roti Roll, Charleston Crepe Company, and Smoke BBQ. You could leave the market with a quarter of the items that you could get for the same price at Food Lion.

We have certain ideals for what we expect out of a farmers market. Some common objectives include shopping for variety, promoting health and sustainability, supporting local farmers, utilizing an alternative food source, and advocating for the go green movement. However, there is a sense of identity that comes from shopping for commodities of a certain caliber – think heirloom, exotic, organic. The focus shifts from being less about the produce itself and more about who is and, moreover, who isn’t shopping here.

The process of identity formation can intersect with class and race, producing exclusion of those who don’t fit a particular mold. Shoppers must be willing to pay a high price for products they didn’t grow or make themselves. Creating social barriers sets us back from sustainable living as these public places are transformed into private space due to informal social boundary construction. It seemed clear but strange to me that neighborhood parks (which supposedly promote community involvement) and farmers markets (promote a sense of health and supporting local) could be counterproductive to environmentalism as a whole.

I absolutely agree that buying local is an important step to reducing our ecological footprint; however, if food security is presented as socially exclusive, as it was at the West Ashley Farmer’s Market, is this actually holistic and sustainable? There is a need for an overarching systematic change that allows fresh produce to be readily available to all races and SES. I just want to point out that it is necessary to examine how we present sustainable food, how we idealize the green consumer, and why we have fetishized trendy movements such as Farmer’s Markets.


Alternative Living

We are experiencing an unprecedented population growth, and by 2050 experts believe that we will exceed 10 billion residents on our one and only life-sustaining planet. It is time for Earth’s inhabitants to take action against the many man-made forces of environmental destruction. Of course, food and power production represents two areas most impactful to our collective ecological footprint. If we are to adequately monitor the progress of environmental change while also providing for an ever-increasing global population, alternative production methods are in great demand. Leading the charge of alternative and more sustainable methods of living, ReGen Villages offer a glimmer of hope for a more earth-friendly lifestyle.


By 2017, the first “test community” of ReGen houses and farm plots will be tested in a small suburb outside of Amsterdam. It will be composed of 25 houses, which easily allow residents to live sustainably. Organized around the idea of self-production, the village will, for instance, derive most of its power from various “alternative” sources such as geothermal, solar, and wind. Continuing the community’s focus on self-sustainability, the fertilizer used in the village’s various vertically organized farm plots will come from the various fishponds located within the village itself. This will not only eliminate the cost of procuring fertilizer, but will also lessen the environmental impact of large-scale industrial fertilizer production.


Of course, any community, no matter how sustainable, produces large amounts of waste. Within the ReGen village, there are plans for a widespread composting project, where waste from within the village will be combined with highly efficient farming methods such as aquaponics to yield up to 90% more productive harvests. However strong the village’s composting program is, however, it will not be able to fully utilize all of the community’s waste products. Still, this non-compostable waste is still useful as a means for power production. In combination with the village’s aforementioned alternative power sources, planners aim to use biomass fuel technologies to harness the power within this non-compostable waste matter. I’m excited to see how this idea works out throughout the year!