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What does new Charleston Mayor William Cogswell have in store for Holy City development?

By Will Jacobs 

CHARLESTON - William S. Cogswell Jr. is the first Republican mayor in Charleston in more than 150 years. And he has ambitious plans for the Holy City.

Born in Charleston in 1975, Cogswell graduated from Sewanee, The University of the South, with a bachelor’s degree in real estate development. 

As an owner of WECCO Development Company, the former state representative has spent significant time specializing in real estate development from Charleston to Savannah, Georgia.

Some of his past major development projects in the private sector include the $30 million redevelopment of the Charleston Cigar Factory and the old Navy Yard.

Although the new mayor declined an interview with CofC Explained, his background in development provides a glimpse into his now prominent role as leader of the city.

Major development projects on the docket

From renovating an old West Ashley Piggly Wiggly grocery story into a retail mecca to turning Union Pier into a major downtown entertainment destination, Cogswell has been implementing his development visions for the Holy City since before he even won the runoff election for mayor.

Over the course of the past few decades, Charleston and the surrounding areas have seen a huge uptick in development as more and more people have called the Holy City home.

Many think the development is good for the economy and the city, while some believe overdevelopment leads to congestion and a watering down of the historic integrity of the city. 

“Charleston is becoming so congested with all these people and all this stuff happening,” said Mason Leath of Tradd Street.  

Even though he has only been in office for a handful of months, Cogswell purchased the site of the former West Ashley Piggly Wiggly in an effort to breathe new life into the area and revitalize the surrounding neighborhoods. 

The decision was deadlocked in the West Ashley City Council before Cogswell took office, but with his support and influence, the $45 million dollar project was approved. 

The South Carolina Ports Authority Board approved a $65 million sale of Union Pier in downtown Charleston to billionaire Ben Navarro on March 19, two months after Cogswell was sworn in. 

"[Navarro] wants to work with the city of Charleston. He wants to work with the mayor. He wants to hear from the citizens of Charleston, and he wants to do what's right for the people of Charleston," Stern said. "He's going to put the resources into doing this right. That's why we made this deal."

Cogswell has expressed his support to Navarro but stated some conditions for the redevelopment: providing public access to the waterfront, adding significant greenspace, utilizing lower density and height restrictions for building, and affordability.

Environmental concerns a reality

Cogswell knows that whatever projects he proposes, attention to sea level rise and traffic congestion will be at the forefront of the discussion as they will directly impact how and where new development can begin.

Ross Appel, City Councilmember from Charleston’s 11th District, points out that these issues are only becoming more problematic every year and have to be taken into account.

“Charleston is facing more and more of these challenges every year, and I think how we deal with it over the coming years is going to be very important for generations to come,” Appel said.

But high rent prices and a tumultuous housing market have residents curious what the new mayor’s ongoing development plans for the city will look like. 

“I hope we are not going from the hands of one developer to another,” said Mason Leath, a resident in the South of Broad neighborhood in Charleston. 

Even with Cogswell’s development history, Leath is optimistic about the incoming administration and hopes Cogswell and his team will “preserve the historical integrity of the city."

Charleston is infamous for massive flooding due to its precarious location on the water. The city is susceptible to flooding because the land is flat and surrounded by water on three sides. 

According to the City of Charleston Department of Stormwater Management, the city floods for the above reasons and many more. 

The department says that the tides and more frequent and intense storms contribute to widespread flooding seemingly whenever it rains. 

Appel believes new development is beneficial for the city because the building and zoning laws that are in place take into account the newer environmental concerns affecting the city.

Appel believes newer housing and building developments in West Ashley and his district in James Island are positive development projects due to recent environmental laws that have gone into place before the houses were being built. 

“We are trying to steer development in that direction and really try to incentivize against bad building practices that affect low-lying areas. It’s my understanding that [Mayor Cogswell] is on board with this,” Appel said. 

Preserving natural protected areas and wildlife is also a concern the mayor should consider. At least that's the hope of conservation groups in the Lowcountry.

David Quick is an environmental journalist who has worked for the Post and Courier and is on the board of Friends of Coastal Carolina, an environmental group here in South Carolina. 

“What we see now is a push from environmental groups and conservation teams to make sure the completion of buildings is not conflicting with existing marshland or wildlife preserves in the area,” Quick said. 

It is unclear how far the mayor is willing to go when it comes to developing parts of Charleston that are protected wildlife areas, but it was a stated policy initiative prior to taking office.

Charleston population growing out of control

As mayor of a quickly expanding city, Cogswell is going to have to find an answer to the traffic and housing issues facing a growing population.

As of 2021, 148,000 people call Charleston home - and that number is not going down anytime soon. 

That’s not including the 11,000 students at the College of Charleston, the 4,000 at the Citadel, and the 3,000 at Charleston Southern University. 

There is also an exodus from many northern and midwestern states contributing to overpopulation in the Lowcountry as evidenced by the extended traffic delay getting to any of the Lowcountry's beaches - Sullivan's Island, Isle of Palms or Folly Beach.

Traffic delays daily on I-526, I-26 and Highway 17 and the Ravenel Bridge are also a testament to the growing population and added traffic congestion.

“In terms of development, you are seeing from 2016 onward a huge push of northerners moving down here. Charleston is a growing city in part to its growing tech sector and allure for young people to have a fun, warm place to live. We’ve seen places like Nashville and Austin grow like crazy, and I don’t think Charleston should be left out of that conversation,” Leath said. 

The boom in population growth over the past decade or so has contributed to rising housing and rent costs in the city, and congestion overall. 

“Charleston is becoming so congested as a result of this,” Leath added. 

Mayor Cogswell was sure to mention these rising costs and other issues in his inaugural address.

"Now we do have growing pains," Cogswell noted in his inaugural address. "But the solution to affordability, rising sea level, traffic congestion, and crime must be of Charleston, by Charleston."

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