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American Society of Landscape Architects


September 2004 Issue

Best Foot Forward
A fine new walking neighborhood near Charleston almost didn't get built.

By Allen Freeman

Best Foot Forward Louis Joyner

What do you get when you apply New Urbanist theories to South Carolina vernacular architecture and build a traditional neighborhood development just three miles from Charleston’s famous historic district?

That would be I’On, located across the Cooper River Bridge in the bedroom community of Mount Pleasant. Despite having to scale back their plans during the permit approval process, I’On’s founders maintained a core vision, and today I’On is recognized as one of the best of its breed. The Congress for New Urbanism named I’On a 2003 Charter Award winner, citing “the builders’ intense attention to architectural quality and the plan’s novel use of water bodies for civic space,” and the National Association of Home Builders selected I’On “Best Smart Growth Neighborhood in the Country” in 2002 and “Best Community in the Nation” in 2001. In addition, the state gave I’On a stewardship award for protecting the environment and adhering to principles of smart growth.

I’On (pronounced Eye-on) was named for Jacob Bond I’On, a South Carolina planter and War of 1812 hero whose family once owned I’On’s 243 flatland acres edged by a couple of marshy creeks. When I’On’s developer arm, Civitas, planned the project a decade ago, 60 percent of the acreage was in agriculture, 30 percent was covered in mature hardwood growth, and 10 percent was man-made lakes formed when fill was excavated for the construction of a nearby interstate highway. Now about three-quarters completed, I’On is being built out to its allowable density of 759 single-family houses (3.5 units per acre) in six small, so-called boroughs that emulate the development patterns and the architecture of Low Country towns and villages.

Vince Graham (one of I’On’s three founding partners—Tom, Vince, and Geoff Graham) took the lead in making I’On a traditional walking community, as he calls it, with an implied emphasis on "walking." He helped extract ideas from Savannah and the Isle of Hope in Georgia and in South Carolina from models in Rockville, McClellanville, Beaufort, Charleston itself, and the old fishing village at the heart of Mount Pleasant. In fact, while developing Newpoint in Beaufort a few years earlier, Graham took a tape measure to Beaufort’s older section and recorded the depth of front porches, the distance from porches to sidewalks, the width of sidewalks, the distance from sidewalks to edges of curbs, and the width of rights-of-way. "We copied those exact dimensions [at Newpoint] for the most part," he says. "Later on we learned how to manipulate the spaces to get what we wanted."

At I’On’s difficult birth, Graham employed a team that included Florida-based New Urbanist planners Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company and Dover, Kohl & Partners and Mount Pleasant-based landscape architects Seamon, Whiteside & Associates. Charleston-based landscape architects Wertimer and Associates and DesignWorks later became involved as well. As if steering a controversial bill through a legislature, the team advanced and retreated through contentious hearings, eventually eliminating multifamily housing and downsizing the commercial component. "We were really close to throwing in the towel when we got turned down the first time because we felt the compromises we had to make took so much away from the concept that it wasn’t worth doing," Graham says. "But...history lasts a long time. The [development’s] hundred-year plan will evolve and change, so we figured it would be worth doing as long as we could get the bones right." I’On broke ground on the infrastructure in June 1997, and the first house was started in March 1998. By midsummer of this year, 400 houses had been completed, and 75 were under construction.

To reach I’On from Charleston, head east on U.S. Highway 17 across the harbor bridge and enter the municipality of Mount Pleasant. Although a small fishing village near the center of the town gave it its name, Mount Pleasant today sprawls over 26,000 acres in strip malls and suburban housing developments dating from the 1950s to the present. The town web site claims a population of 56,666, making it the sixth largest municipality in South Carolina, and it projects a growth rate that would elevate it to the state’s fourth largest by 2010.

U.S. 17 is the spine from which Mount Pleasant sprawls. Turn at Mathis Ferry Road and find I’On’s entrance on your left. Just inside the development is I’On Square, a compact commercial area at the south end of the development with only a handful of shops, including a gourmet food-to-go, a restaurant and pub, a garden store, and professional suites. There’s a supermarket near the entrance to I’On, but to buy consumer electronics or clothing, you have to drive several miles beyond I’On’s borders.

If the weather is amenable, you might park your car in one of the small, landscaped lots behind the five commercial buildings, which fit the Low Country style vocabulary, and set out through the community on foot. The borough surrounding I’On Square has sidewalks and an urban feel; its house lots are tighter and its houses smaller than elsewhere in I’On. The streets are narrow; there’s no indication that they serve cars passing through to other destinations. Traffic calming was important in Graham’s overall walking–playing strategy. "The public realm is for the people to get out and enjoy," Graham says. "If it is not a comfortable place for pedestrians, they will not come out into it. I’ve lived in the neighborhoods I’ve built. Hearing parents of young children complain about traffic speed gets to you. You do everything you can to slow those speeds down. It’s the right thing to do anyway."

Some property lines meet the street at a slight angle, something Graham says he particularly wanted. "Builders will come in and line the houses parallel to the side property lines [but not the street], so you have little triangular-shaped yards in front," he says. "You see that a lot in Charleston. [The deflection] is subtle, just a few degrees, although in some cases it is more. Looking at a house from a corner is more forgiving to the architecture than when you look straight on. The front porches are a little more private because you are not looking directly from your porch into the next person’s porch."

Walk north around the Rookery, I’On’s seven-acre wetland preserve, to Eastlake, the larger of the development’s two lakes. The 60 houses surrounding Eastlake are three stories tall and closely spaced like the ones they resemble in Charleston’s postwar (Civil War, that is) Colonial Lake district. House to house, materials vary from clapboard to brick to stucco, but all have raised first floors and double-decker porches—called "piazzas" in Charleston—facing the lake. The houses on the eastern shore open to a path at the edge of the lake; those on the western side open to the sidewalk along Ponsbury Road, which skirts the lake.

In the borough near I’On’s western border, the streets resemble those in a small Southern town. The blocks are generally foursquare; the houses are two stories and sited close to the sidewalks. Some have piazzas along their side elevations; some occupy deep lots with garages opening into service lanes at the back. In contrast, the houses at I’On’s north end are grouped less formally. They occupy slightly larger lots, and some back up to wetlands and creeks. The streets curve a little more here, and there are no sidewalks. You walk in the quiet streets, as you would in an isolated coastal village. A nature trail skirts the marshes at the rear of the houses.

While working out the planning patterns and many of the details that define I’On, Graham was comfortable interacting with his land planners, architects, and landscape architects because all were "going in the same direction," he says. "We learned from each other." Because of that, Steve Dudash, asla, of DesignWorks, enjoyed the process. "You can come up with crazy ideas—think of all kinds of things: What if you did this? What if you did that?" Dudash says. "And Vince is doing the same thing, which makes it fun." Kenneth R. Seamon, asla, of Seamon Whiteside, agrees, noting that Graham interjects ideas and leaves the table open. Seamon says, "It’s a situation that most developers wouldn’t even consider," and as a result most design solutions are discussed and well thought out.

(Seamon Whiteside also did I’On’s civil engineering, and Seamon believes that having a single firm work on design and engineering helped strengthen the outcome. At the same time, Seamon endorses Graham’s approach of employing multiple landscape architects for various pieces of the development. Bringing in an assortment of thought processes will produce something like the design variety of cities but will also preclude the possibility of a one-stop designer sacrificing design quality in pursuit of variety.)

Asked if I’On exactly copies the models it was based on, Graham replies, "Let me make clear that we weren’t out to replicate anything. We were taking inspiration from places and then combining that inspiration with modern advances to create new places.... Some of the elements are not just Low Country design. In our travels, we pick up inspiring observations from Venice and Paris and Nantucket and everywhere we go."

If Graham wasn’t born a realist, he became one during the I’On permitting process. "Around here, we say if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans," he says.

In 1992, three years before Graham and partners sought approval to build I’On, the Mount Pleasant town council unanimously adopted a townwide master plan incorporating traditional neighborhood design principles. It cited the old village of Mount Pleasant, with its mix of civic, commercial, and residential uses, as the development model. The plan even singled out the site on which I’On eventually would be built as an ideal location for such a development. Two years later, a Mount Pleasant strategic plan endorsed the master plan and encouraged its development. Unfortunately for I’On’s partners and planners, the town did not modify zoning laws to reflect the council’s policies. This meant the land on which I’On was to be built would require specific zoning approval as a "planned development."

The first thing I’On’s founding partners did was to visit historic sections in the Low Country communities with planners from Dover, Kohl & Partners and Duany Plater-Zyberk. Then they spent seven days developing a community plan and design code for I’On. In May 1995 at a public hearing in the town council chambers, Andres Duany presented the plan, which called for 800 single-family lots, 440 multifamily units, 90,000 square feet of commercial space, and scattered sites reserved for civic uses. The rezoning application followed three months later, and after several public meetings, the Mount Pleasant Planning Board recommended approval. Nevertheless, in anticipation of resistance from certain members of the town council, the I’On team reduced the number of single-family lots to 730 and multifamily units to 120. This plan met the town’s definition of low density at the time, 3.5 units per acre.

Yet despite downsizing, the town council rejected the application by a five-to-four vote. Graham says that in public hearings, residents from adjacent subdivisions voiced fears that the smaller lots would depress their property values, that the parks and apartments would attract "undesirables," that I’On traffic would overwhelm Mathis Ferry Road, and that some of the planned streets would be too narrow for fire equipment access. (As built, the streets in I’On neighborhoods vary from a narrow 17 feet across to a slightly less narrow 22 feet. By comparison, the minimum standard for Mount Pleasant subdivisions is 20 feet. I’On’s 30-foot-wide connector streets slim down at intersections to slow traffic.) Further compromises eliminated all multifamily units and reduced the commercial space by two-thirds.

Why the resistance to commercial space in a town that already had big-box retailers and strip malls? Graham, emphasizing that opposition came from certain members of the town council, says, "Mixed use involves a different mind-set. Some people just couldn’t understand how you could mix in commercial with residential. Maybe it is the preexisting paradigm of segregating uses. The commercial part of I’On was very important to us, not because it is a big economic driver but because we felt it was important for the whole concept. When we were going through the second round, our attorney advised us to take out all the commercial as a further compromise, but that was one of the things we resisted. We stood our ground and just cut the square footage."

I’On’s opponents were picking and choosing whatever they could to defeat the plan, Graham says. "We had to produce a development package that we thought was politically supportable." Early in 1997, the new plan—759 single-family units, no multifamily units, and 30,000 square feet of commercial space—received a seven-to-one approval vote by the planning board and a six-to-three approval by the town council.

Now that I’On nears build-out at 243 acres, Graham is asked if he thinks it would work at a much bigger scale. "There’s a limit to size in terms of area," he says, "but it could have been much more dense. Ionsborough [the borough near I’On Square] could have twice the number of units and still feel like it does today. It would just have been much more vibrant, had more life." Each of I’On’s six boroughs—Ionsborough, Eastlake, Shel-more, Westlake, Ponsbury, and Montrose—focuses on a civic space such as a lake, a park, or a square.

I’On’s awards testify to its recognition nationally and in South Carolina; demand testifies to its appeal to home buyers in the Charles- ton area. I’On property values consistently outperform the market and remain the highest among new communities in Mount Pleasant, Graham reports. The development’s lot sizes range from 3,500 to 10,000 square feet and sell for $100,000 to $500,000. The custom and speculative houses measure from 960 square feet to more than six times that size and sell for $400,000 to $2 million.

Landscape architect Steve Dudash, asla, who worked on I’On Square at the development’s south end and on the nature trails along the marshland at its north end, says I’On succeeds because Graham had a valid idea, stuck to his guns, and worked hard on design issues. "Even after the town council approved the plans, a lot of people didn’t think what he wanted to do was anything that people would buy," Dudash says. "Today people move there because of the strong sense of community."

Graham acknowledges advocating good design and making it work at I’On, but he refuses to take credit for creating a sense of community. "We haven’t done that at all," he says. "Community evolves from the people who live there, not from any top-down mandate. All we’ve done is contribute to a place that enables community to happen."

Project Credits
Owner: The I’On Company. Developer: Civitas llc. Planners: Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company; Dover, Kohl & Partners; Seamon, Whiteside & Associates; DesignWorks. Landscape architects: Seamon, Whiteside & Associates; Wertimer and Associates; DesignWorks. Engineers: Seamon, Whiteside & Associates; Thomas and Hutton. General contractor: Gulfstream Construction.

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