An eye on IāOn
A decade after its controversial beginning,
master-planned community flourishing
By Kathleen Dayton
IāOn, a master-planned community of Charleston-style homes on narrow streets and surrounded by lakes and wetlands in the middle of Mount Pleasant, is one of the most high-profile neighborhood in the East Cooper area.
Its pastel-colored lanes and small downtown area have essentially created a town-within-a-town and garnered the attention of planners and developers from across the country.
Among its prizes is a Stewardship Award from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, the 2003 Congress for New Urbanism Charter Award and the āBest Community in the Nationā award from the National Association of Home Builders.
The neighborhood, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month, has been featured in magazines such as Southern Living and Architectural Digest and on television programs such as CNN Headline News. Developers and planners come to see it, to study it and to attempt to build one like it.
But there was a time when some residents and town officials thought it might be best if IāOn would just go away.
A little more than 10 years ago, IāOn was a sticky issue for Mount Pleasant, with every town council member who voted for the project losing their seats in the subsequent election.
The development fought a heap of opposition from the areaās citizens in its early planning stages. Even today, some area residents resent the neighborhood and the more than 600 homes that have been built there since the first home broke ground in 1998.
āIronically, one of those who opposed the plan now lives in IāOn,ā said Vince Graham, president of the IāOn Group and founder of the neighborhood along with his father, Tom Graham, and brother, Geoff Graham.
Steve Brock moved into the neighborhood a few years ago, although he had helped lead a core group of individuals who opposed the project a decade ago.
āLife is full of ironies, isnāt it,ā Brock said. āThis IāOn I live in is a compromise. Itās not the first IāOn. There was a plan advanced by the Grahamsā company in 1995 that was a great deal different. It was a great deal larger.ā
Brock and others who opposed the development were also unhappy with the mixed-use concept that would include businesses and apartments along with single-family residential homes, he said.
The concept is wildly popular now and is being used in new developments throughout the tri-county area; however, it was a new concept for Mount Pleasant in the mid-1990s.
āI never liked the idea of mixing that much multi-family in a neighborhood. It never made sense to me,ā Brock said. āI know the concept of āNew Urbanismā is mixed-use, but (IāOn) was just enormously dense. Frankly, I still think there are too many homes now.
āBut there are so many things about IāOn that are good. Itās beautiful, and there is something to be said for living in such close proximity to your neighbors. I know the neighbors better than Iāve known neighbors in any other neighborhood.ā
A throwback design
IāOn and its New Urbanism design is a throwback to centuries-old downtown designs used in Europe and emulated in many U.S. cities before communities followed new highways into the suburbs after World War II.
Grahamās company studied the town of Seaside, Fla., a nationally acclaimed New Urbanism-style community, and then added a Lowcountry flair to create IāOn. While the neighborhood has some of the charms of downtown Charleston, it also has some of its problems, such as limited on-street parking and narrow thoroughfares that can challenge delivery trucks and those who are trying to get around them.
āThere are some issues out here, and traffic is one,ā Brock said. āOne of the standard hopes for New Urbanism is for people to have fewer cars. That works with a mass transit system and we donāt have one.ā
An infill project
Cheryl Woods-Flowers, who was mayor of Mount Pleasant at the time the first plans for IāOn were proposed, said one reason she was in favor of the development was that it was an infill project that would put homes near businesses, churches and services, cutting back on the number of cars on the main thoroughfares.
āThe first reaction I had was that it was an interesting concept and one that I had read about in other parts of the country,ā Woods-Flowers said. āI also knew it was going to be a very difficult project to get approved because it was outside of what people were used to in a new development.ā
Woods-Flowers lost her run for re-election in 2000 and said people who had opposed IāOn helped her opponentās campaign.
Tom Tanis, another former town councilman who lost his seat in the election after IāOn broke ground, was chairman of Mount Pleasantās planning committee during the IāOn debate.
āIt was a different approach to the traditional subdivision that everybody had been used to,ā Tanis said. āThere were a lot of people in the neighborhoods on either side who were opposed.ā
The ācircle of deathā
Aside from traffic concerns, people in neighboring subdivisions were concerned that the proposed apartments at IāOn would devalue the neighborhood, Tanis said, and they were also opposed to the traffic circle that is now at the intersection of North Shelmore Drive and Mathis Ferry Road.
āThey referred to it as a ācircle of death,āā Tanis said. āAfter it was in place and people started getting used to it, there came requests for traffic circles from some other subdivisions and other areas.ā
Tanis said one reason he approved of IāOn was because of its strict architectural guidelines. He also liked the projectās small-town feel.
āIāve never really had second thoughts about supporting it,ā Tanis said. āI think theyāve been unbelievably good neighbors as far as trying to work with the community. One of the things, right from the start, that they said they were going to do and they have done, is include the entire community in everything they do. When they have events at their amphitheater, they invite the whole community, and they invite people to go in and walk on their trails. I think itās an asset to our community.ā
Drew Grossklaus, director of marketing for the IāOn Group, said the success of IāOn prompted the developer to change the name of its management company, which was called Civitas, to IāOn.
āThatās how proud we are of IāOn and all thatās been accomplished,ā Grossklaus said. āI think change is always difficult for anyone. Really, when you look back on the beginning, itās understandable why people would be skeptical about IāOn, but I think weāve proved that sometimes itās OK to take a little chance.ā
Now that the development is 85% complete, Graham said the neighborhood has exceeded his initial vision for it.
āWe didnāt anticipate that people would embrace it as they have,ā Graham said. āOur inspiration was the Old Village and parts of downtown, and just to see (builders) not only grasp the vision but take it and raise the bar in a way that we never thought of is kind of inspiring.ā
Home values have risen steadily in the neighborhood since its inception, ranging now from $450,000 to nearly $3 million.
āWe didnāt anticipate that the price of the average home would exceed that of the Old Village, which it does now,ā Graham said. āItās a double-edge sword. Itās great that market values have gone up so much, but itās also unfortunate that this neighborhood has gone beyond the reach of a lot of people that would like to live in a neighborhood like this. Itās supply and demand. There are a limited number of neighborhoods like this but a great demand from people who want to live in a neighborhood like this, and thatās what makes the prices go up.ā
The Grahamsā original plans for IāOn called for 800 single-family home lots, 440 multi-family units, 90,000 square feet of commercial space and a number of civic sites. Land planners Dover Kohl and DOZ led the project.
After much debate and many revisions, a new plan and rezoning application was submitted in December 1996. The multi-family units had been eliminated, and commercial space had been reduced to 30,000 square feet. A road connecting to an adjacent neighborhood was eliminated, and the total unit count dropped to 759.
Infrastructure construction began in the summer of 1997 on the property, which had been known as the Jordan Tract. During that time, opponents of the project presented more than 3,000 petitions to town council requesting the overturn of the approved ordinance or hold a referendum enabling the citizenry to vote on the zoning.
The Grahams challenged the action in court as site work continued. One week prior to the scheduled referendum, Circuit Court Judge Markley Dennis ruled that a municipality could not hold a referendum on zoning issues. While the town was satisfied, opponents appealed the decision in the S.C. Supreme Court in December 1999. In January 2000, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously to affirm the lower courtās decision.
Mount Pleasant Councilman Paul Gawrych was in his first term on council when the IāOn debates first began and it was the first project he voted on. He was in favor.
āIām very glad I supported it,ā Gawrych said. āIt is a very well-known fact that the neighborhood has since won awards and gathered national attention. I would say it has become a symbol for Mount Pleasant and a destination.
āI would definitely say it has set precedents for many new neighborhoods throughout the tri-county area to include service roads, grid-pattern streets, interconnectivity roundabouts, common areas and the theme of a live/work community.ā
Gawrych said he feels he was voted out of office in 1998 because he supported IāOn. He was re-elected in 2002 and again in 2006. How does he feel now about issues such as traffic and noise that opponents of IāOn had predicted if the neighborhood was built?
āOnce you get past the fact that it was going to be developed in a residential manner anyway, you come to understand that the layout with several entrances and the roundabout actually work better than you thought,ā Gawrych said. āThe project also interconnects with the adjacent neighborhoods, which of course goes a long way to prevent traffic issues.ā
Gawrych also said he believes some of IāOnās original features, such as the multi-family units that had been planned, would have worked if they hadnāt been eliminated from the plans.
āIt would have worked, as (that) theme is starting to take place all over the tri-county area,ā he said. āIt failed back then, as it was simply ahead of its time.ā
Brock, the former IāOn opponent and current IāOn resident, said things donāt always turn out the way you think they will.
āSometimes theyāre not as bad, sometimes theyāre not as good and sometimes theyāre just different,ā he said. āI do enjoy life here.ā
Kathleen Dayton is a staff writer for the Business Journal. E-mail her at email@example.com.