I want to discuss the planning that has taken place and is taking place in Charleston, WV. The planning in Charleston, just like anywhere else is meant to address problems and issues. I will start by explaining the city and the problems it has been and is now facing.
I will do this in three parts:
Part I - Problems and the Planning in the 80's
Part II - Planning in the 90's
Part III - The Turn Around Point and Now
The city of Charleston is located in central West Virginia in a valley formed by the Kanawha river. Three major Interstate Highways intersect near downtown Charleston (I-64, I-77 and I-79) and there is a good chance that many of you have passed through the area before. Charleston currently has an economy that can be described as being in a process of conversion from industrial to a varied sector of services, creative, convention center and low level tech.
The Problems Facing Charleston
Charleston has several problems, some of which are unique to the area and some of which are taking place in other former "rust-belt" cities. Many of the Charleston's problems stem from the loss of it's manufacturing and chemical industries, poor planning in the past and a complacent populous that was afraid of change.
The Declining Manufacturing Base
Charleston had been losing population since the 60's though the "leak" was "slow" during the 60's and 70's. The real problems began in the 80's when "outshoring" of manufacturing became the trend. This problem reached it's climax in the late 90's and early 2000's when mass lay off's began to take place and entire plants were closed.
Charleston has lost half of it's population since the 60's as a result of a lack of economic opportunities in the area. Very little was done and nothing was started to address the problems until the 80's. The area still remained focused on the industrial and extractive industries until at least the mid 90's further placing it behind the power curve in dealing with the population loss.
An Apathetic Populous Afraid of Change
This is one of Charleston's fairly unique problems. This problem is centered around the older populous of the city in the 50 and above range which had blocked many of the needed changes proposed in the 80's and 90's. I call this the "Union Red Neck Mentality" because it is a result of a lack of education (much of Charleston's older population is composed of high school drop outs that went to work in the factories at an early age). Much of this population has been forced to move, has died out or is looking at things in a different perspective as the city and surrounding area began to deteriorate as a result of a lack of willingness to change.
Rising Crime Rate and Slum Lords
As Charleston's economy collapsed between the 80's and early 2000's, certain neighborhoods in the city were dominated by drug activity, prositution and organized crime. This made the city as a whole an undesirable place to visit or live in and made it difficult for population slide to be controlled. Many young people engaged in these activities because they did not have any other activities to occupy them and there were no jobs available.
Slums lords became common place around the time period that the economy in the area took a slide. The blight was highly visible throughout the city and passer by's on the Interstates could clearly see it giving the entire area a depressing look.
Bread & Circuses - Political Corruption
The older population of Charleston followed the Unions and swallowed everything the Unions sold hook, line and sinker. This in turn impacted the decisions the populous made in voting and resulted in highly corrupt politicians getting in office. Many of these cases have been high profile and many of you are likely familiar with them. Hand outs were common to placate the populous and keep the votes coming.
The self serving politics resulted in a "fiefdom" style of politics that stifled any chance at change and made it difficult for any competing influences from the outside to get in. Charleston became known as the "name dropping capital" and the "good ol' boy" system was the one of the few routes to prosperity in the region.
Things are changing as the Unions are losing influence in the area.
Problems in Summary
Charleston hit rock bottom around 2001. Things were looking VERY depressing in the early 2000's and it began to look like things may never turn around. The newspapers were full of more bad news than good news. It came to a point where lay off's, downtown business closings, declining tax base, murders, drugs, prostitution, pornography rings and etc were the main headlines. The problems of lack of employment opportunity, crime and blighted neighborhoods still stand today, but all of these are declining rapidly and there is definite obvious efforts to address the issues with a focus.
Planning in Charleston
Charleston has been a hotbed of urban planning and ideas since the early 80's. Many of the early ideas were "pie in the sky" kind of ideas that never panned out or worked the way they were intended. You always had some creative politician with a "fix all solution" to the region's problems. The sad thing was that many of the changes in the 80's and 90's did not address the core problem and side stepped around making changes which were needed to attract out of state investment as well as bringing new blood into the region.
I will cover mainly planning in the 80's, 90's and 2000's. There were earlier planning efforts, but most of those centered around keeping the downtown active. One good example was the decision to route the interstates right through the downtown rather than around the city which will work to the city's advantage now that things are starting to appear clearner and more welcoming.
The 80's were times of declining employment and massive pollution problems in Charleston. The city was focused on keeping the downtown "alive" during this time period and many projects surfaced to try to keep it going. These projects did not address the core problem (declining economy) and as such had limited success at the time. One planning plus during the 80's was that the focus began to change to making it a convention city, though nothing really serious took place on it until the late 90's and early 2000's.
Superblock - The first major project was known as the "Superblock". The concept was to build a mall in the downtown rather than one in the suburbs. This mall is known as the Charleston Town Center Mall and is quite large with around 180 stores and all kinds of kiosks. It features two large floors of shopping, greenery, fountains and a third floor dining area. The project was highly subsidized from the beginning and I believe that up until fairly recently, there were subsidies still being given for vacant store front.
The superblock adds an interesting feature to the city. What value is it? It provides a venue of entertainment and exercise, epsecially now that it frequently hosts live music, mall walk's and other activities. The mall is part of current plans that may actually make it a better assett that can pay for itself.
Transit Park - This was the beginning of making downtown pedestrian friendly. The idea behind the transit park was that it would be linked to the mall by brick covered wide walkways free of vehicles with easy street crossings and that it would be lined with shops along the way. This is also a main point of mass transit and the center of it has a street passing through where only city mass transit vehicles are permitted. Features of it were brick walk ways, picnic tables, fountains, greenery, benches and etc. It was also equipped to be a place for public out door events.
On the side of the transit park opposite of the town center mall is a brick walkway linking it Capitol Street which is in what is known as Charleston's Village District. Most of the original Victorian era structures still remain since urban renewal plans in the 60's made them difficult to take down.
Civic Center - This is at the end of the mall opposite of the Transit park. For it's size, Charleston has a massive civic center with a great deal of events. It also features convention facilities which was likely the main plan for it in the 80's (only recently has it begun to pay off though).
Pedestrianization of downtown - The pedestrianization of downtown began in the 80's and was planned in conjuction with the transit park. The idea was that people would exit the mas transit vehicles (bus and trolly) and then branch out from there to the mall, shops in the transit mall and other parts of downtown. Most of pedestrianization involved installing wider sidewalks while reducing the vehicle lanes on some streets. The first streetscapes also started as part of this project and featured planted trees, trash recepticals in convenient places, benches and etc. Most of downtown was not pedestrianized in the 80's though.
The coming of the Fiber Network - Subsidies were given to Verizon to start an advanced phone and fiber optic network. While it started in the lates 80's, most of it was completed in the mid to late 90's. The idea was that companies would realize how advanced Charleston's telecommunication infrastructure was and would bring data and call centers there. It worked to a degree and there is a good chance that when you get a telemarketer on the phone, they could be working in an office building in Charleston. hehehe! More on this below.
Office Towers - Charleston is the only city in West Virginia with buildings topping 20 stories and as such has the only "skyline" in the state. Most of the tall office towers were built in the 80's and are clearly visible from the interstate. The office towers were the first moves toward a different economy in the area, but they were simply too little, too late in the 80's. The only planning involved with these were zoning changes and controlling where they popped up.
The 80's were not that exciting and much of what was planned did not fully work or pan out as intended. Much of what went into place needed other things to happen first before the full value was ever realized. Moves that were made in the 80's such as the mall, civic center, transit mall and etc and being incorporated into the current plans.
This concludes Part I. I will write up a part II shortly. Some of you have already been through Charleston and discussed it's planning. I hope this gives you more insight into the earlier steps and the theories behind them and what worked and what did not.