Golden Pen Award: Thanks P&C!

The editorial staff of Charleston’s daily newspaper, The Post and Courier, awarded a letter I wrote the “Golden Pen” winner for the month of March.

Hooray! Here’s a link to the full letter:, as well as a link to the article I responded to:

Letter: Expanding localized governance
Mar 28 2015

The March 21 article about splitting the Charleston Board of Architecture Review (BAR) into two parts pointed out that the board’s purview had been extended from an initial 180 acres in 1931 to 2,700 acres today.

Defending this mission creep, Mayor Joe Riley drew a comparison to other beautiful cities: “There is not a part of Siena that you’re not worried about. There is not a part of Venice that you’re not worried about.” These comments made me wonder if a blind spot exists with regard to the vastness of Charleston’s scale.

Siena’s historic district today is about the same size as Charleston’s historic district was in 1931 — 180 acres. It is divided into 17 contrade (Siena’s name for boroughs). The historic area of Venice, comprising 1,800 acres, also provides an interesting comparison. Though half the size, Venice has almost double the peninsula’s population — all of it gracefully housed in two to four-story buildings. Venice also manages an annual tourism load of 20 million visitors — more than four times that of Charleston’s. Are there lessons to be gained from the scale of these cities and how they accommodate tourism?

Until 1960, Charleston’s city limits were confined to the peninsula. This compact urbanism resiliently weathered centuries of storms, plagues, earthquakes and war sieges.

Today it provides the city with its internationally recognized brand. However, the peninsula comprises only 5 percent of Charleston’s city limits. Since 1960, Charleston’s land area has expanded twenty-fold to 72,000 acres, most of which is planned for sprawl.

Today, Charleston’s population density is less than one third that of Detroit’s. Something to worry about?

Andres Duany’s suggestion to split the BAR represents yet another threat to the bigger-is-better, command-and-control mindset of the 20th century. A mindset that, like the cumbersome BAR, is failing to deliver quality results. If debate is opened to the notion that small can be beautiful, that bifurcating authority carries the potential for more democratic and responsive governance — look out.

Residents of each borough may demand the right to establish and monitor their own design guidelines. Or choose a guideline-free territory.

Before you know it, this crazy idea of localized governance might take hold amongst the 75 percent of city residents who live off the peninsula.

Mayor Riley said Andres Duany’s visit “made everybody think a little bit.” He said the idea for splitting the BAR “was something I’d never thought of before.” Duany is indeed a genius at provoking constructive tension.

After debating direction for four square miles of the peninsula, perhaps the mayor and candidates aiming to succeed him can engage an introspective discussion on a vision for the city’s other 100-plus square miles.


5 Charles Street, Charleston

Happy Halloween – Explaining the fear campaign behind the dreaded “controversial sidewalk house”

The Charleston Post and Courier carried a front page article last Sunday about Earl’s Court. The couple leading the opposition followed it with an email blast. I responded to that email yesterday. Enjoy.

Project Fear and Earl’s Court, Halloween, 2014

The Controversial Sidewalk House

One Little House – Front Page of last Sunday’s Post and Courier, Oct 26, 2014

Rose Wilder Lane, the new street we’ve built through Earl’s Court in Mt. Pleasant’s Old Village continues in the news.

So what?

Last week, I was quoted in a Post & Courier newspaper article Made for fitness. Study says older, more compact cities are healthier

I responded with the following letter to the editor. Will see if it gets posted.

Kudos to reporter David Quick for his August 19th article headlined “Made for fitness: Study says older, more compact cities are healthier.” Mr. Quick demonstrated a refreshing knack for showing relationship – in this instance between the built environment and community health. And while I appreciated being asked to comment on the study, an abbreviated quotation to one of Mr. Quick’s questions didn’t quite capture my views on the subject. For clarity, here is the full context:
“COMPACT SHMOMPACT! Sure, there’s no question older, walk-able neighborhoods are more conducive to enabling a healthy lifestyle than are sprawling automobile-dependent suburbs. The compact nature of older cities makes it possible to walk or bike to meet daily needs. Such a time-tested arrangement also fosters informal speaking relationships among neighbors, which can lead to healthier social relations and community life. But so what!
Ours is a consumption-based society. Combining the automobile dependent vision embedded in local zoning codes with sprawl-inducing state and federal transportation policy encourages maximum consumption. Thus, building ever more and wider roads across more land leads to more parking spaces, more congestion, more obesity, more mental illness, more traffic fatalities, more cops, more political cronyism, more sick care, more gasoline, more oil, more military to secure more oil flow, more bombing brown people in faraway oil-rich lands, etc. So while it may not be good for human health, urban sprawl is critical to perpetuating our consumption-based economy.”

For 280 years the City of Charleston exemplified human scale urbanism: compact, walk-able, mixed-use. But the mold was broken in 1960, replaced by a planning model that emphasized automobile scale. Historic buildings on corner lots were replaced with gas stations and parking lots. City streets were converted to one-way traffic, and the construction of I-26 and the Crosstown eviscerated neighborhoods. Thousands of people were displaced for the sake of accommodating high-speed traffic on and off the peninsula.

Meanwhile, like cancer, Charleston metastasized. From 3,500 acres in 1960, the city limits grew to more than 70,000 acres, most of it zoned for low-density sprawl. Charleston is now bigger than Washington, D.C. and Boston COMBINED! It has more land area than 10 countries!

While heroic leadership has enabled some one-way streets to be converted back to two-way, most efforts to correct mistakes made on Charleston’s peninsula involve reactive “lip-sticking the pig” tactics – the Crosstown Expressway landscaping comes to mind. Yes, it looks better, but superficial SUB-urban solutions did nothing to solve structural problems.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that those who advanced a vision of automobile dependency didn’t know what they were doing because they didn’t know what they were undoing. For evidence, behold the enduring blight adjacent to I-26 and the Crosstown Expressway slashed through downtown’s old street network. Now imagine the same scarred fabric along similar highways hacked through hundreds of cities around the country. Now imagine this damage severing thousands of cities around the planet.

As unbearable as this may seem, one must also confront the reality that such blight-inducing infrastructure costs the planets’ taxpayers trillions of euros, renminbi, pounds, real, rubles and dollars to build and maintain. Worse, 1.2 million people are killed each year in automobile accidents around the planet.

Also hard to accept is the fact that once an institution surpasses a certain size, short-term benefits to be gained by its working to perpetuate a problem often outweigh those to be derived by solving that problem. Such is the case with an urban vision that involves maximizing the consumption of land, labor, capital, blood, and oil. For you see, by living in a place where it’s possible to walk or drive a short distance to meet daily needs, one does not need to consume as much gasoline. A daily commute that involves more walking as opposed to an hour spent competing for asphalt on a congested expressway, results in fewer doctor visits and consumption of stress-related drugs. Get the picture?

Thus, while politicians, Chamber of Commerce officials, and newspaper editors give lip service to the problems of urban sprawl, they shy away from taking action that would jeopardize the interests of privileged players in our hyper-consumptive economy. As Upton Sinclair said “It’s hard to get a man to understand something, if his salary depends upon him not understanding it.”

But resistance does not lessen the need for change. If this paper’s editors have any aspiration toward advancing the Lowcountry’s conservation ethos, then engage an adult-sized, fact-facing discourse that aspires to move beyond the cronyism inherent in our consumption-oriented growth model. Otherwise, so what!

A Message from the Founders of I’On

In the wee hours of the morning of August 2, 2014, a Charleston County jury rendered a final verdict in the trial of Walbeck vs The I’On Company. The jury found the I’On defendants liable for claims of negligent misrepresentation, breach of contract, and breach of fiduciary duty. The jury rejected all claims of fraud and breach of contract with fraudulent intent.

The jury awarded $20,000 to plaintiff Brad Walbeck and $1.75 million to the homeowners association, the I’On Assembly. The jury also rejected the plaintiffs’ plea for $7,000,000 in punitive damages.

In layperson’s terms, that means the jury felt that we, the defendant, made a mistake that caused significant damages, but they were unconvinced by the plaintiff’s aggressive attempt to portray us as malicious, predatory, or intentionally misleading.

While we are disappointed in the results, we are nevertheless pleased that the jury rejected all suggestions of fraud and found property owner Lea Ann Adkins’ claims completely lacking in merit, rejecting them entirely.

We would like to express our gratitude to the I’On neighbors who testified on our behalf. Finally, we are deeply appreciative of the heroic defense mounted on our behalf by the attorneys and staff of Duffy & Young.

We are proud of the neighborhood and feel it stands as an enduring testament to the honor, vision, noble aspiration, and attentive execution of The I’On Company and the thousands of associated neighborhood building participants engaged in its development over the past two decades. Despite this unfortunate legal contention, our hope is that the neighborhood will endure as a beloved place to be enjoyed by this and future generations. Thanks to all who have supported us along the way.

Geoff Graham, Co-Founder, The I’On Company Tom Graham, Co-Founder, The I’On Company Vince Graham, Co-Founder, The I’On Company

Ribbon Cutting for Earl’s Court!


A welcome ribbon cutting for Earl’s Court took place last Thursday. Three of the first four homes were framed and it was a great opportunity to celebrate with friends, neighbors, elected officials and future residents.

We’re Officially Underway!

If you’ve driven by the Earl’s Court site this week, you’ve noticed some changes! We’re in the process of forming up the foundations for the first three lots. Check out some pictures below and we’ll continue to update the blog as construction progresses!

I’On, 16 Years of Building

Patriots Point inappropriate place for Medal of Honor Museum

On August 8, 2012, the Charleston “Post and Courier ” published an edited version of a letter to the editor I wrote in response to an article about a proposed Medal of Honor Museum at Patriots Point. Below is the full letter.

A better location for a proposed Medal of Honor Museum than Patriots Point would be adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The Medal of Honor was created 150 years ago and more than 3,000 men and women have received the decoration since. Roughly half its recipients were awarded the Medal for actions associated with the war waged against the south by Abraham Lincoln to prevent its independence.

Another 12% of Medal recipients were recognized for service conducted during the “Indian Campaigns.”
Advanced by the likes of Ulysses Grant, William Sherman, and Philip Sheridan, these crusades utilized “total war” tactics perfected during Lincoln’s reign to commit many of the same atrocities against the Native Americans that these generals had perpetrated in the south. Foreshadowing Hitler, Sherman called for a “final solution to the Indian problem.” Such government sanctioned genocide led to the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children (a holocaust for which President Obama furtively signed the Native American Apology Resolution in 2009).

Officials of the Patriots Point Development Authority (PPDA) have made painstaking attempts to justify their institution’s reason for being. This does not go without notice. But if increased ticket sales is the goal, they should consider building something like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which includes the names of more than 58,000 Americans killed in that tragic war. For a small fraction of the $100 million the PPDA proposes be spent on a Medal of Honor museum, a Sesquicentennial Memorial could be built on Charleston Harbor acknowledging the 620,000+ military personnel who lost their lives in Mr. Lincoln’s War. Such a memorial could also pay homage to the 50,000+ southern civilians killed during the war, and at least 1,000,000 southerners who died from disease and starvation in the war’s aftermath.

In last week’s article about the proposed Medal of Honor Museum, The Post and Courier once again reminded readers of the outstanding $9.2 million the PPDA borrowed from the citizens of South Carolina to refurbish the hull of the USS Laffey. What is never reported is the fact that millions more are necessary to renovate the ship’s topsides to a standard worthy of honoring military veterans. Ironically, the USS Laffey was named for Bartlett Laffey, one of the above mentioned Medal of Honor recipients involved in waging war against the south.

There are less expensive ways for the PPDA to promote jingoism than dropping money on rusting relics and other flights of fancy. For example, have the USS Laffey towed up the Potomac to the Lincoln Memorial and present the ship as a gift of war from the people of South Carolina. The Federal Reserve Bank would then only be a quarter mile away, and that bunch happily funds efforts to try and sustain the unsustainable.

Here’s a link to the P&C’s article I was responding to:

Coming Soon: A New Street in the Old Village! Introducing Earl’s Court