I asked my informed urban planning friend Jacob Lindsey, a UGA Landscape Architecture graduate now working in Charleston, about this. Jacob worked for a small firm that hired Candy to provide naming and marketing for several projects in the greater Charleston area and sponsored an art exhibit I created on the topic of Charleston's history (Charleston Historical Art, Dude!). He now has his own company, Fabric Urban Design, LLC. Here's a portion of his response:
"I think part of the problem is cultural, as decision makers (elected officials, land owners, developers) come from a tradition that's especially unsophisticated in regard to planning matters. They also have the classic Southern land ethic that regards land as nothing more than a vehicle for profit.
"Contrast: In Charleston, there's a clear understanding that any kind of development comes with tremendous design review and public scrutiny, which all developers fear and take into account prior to any design effort. We also attract a relatively savvy developer, as this place has a somewhat more competitive and mature real estate market. This drives up land values but also can also spur better quality.
"Athens is a real hard nut to crack, from a planning perspective, and it really breaks my heart to see [stuff] like this happening."
I realized from this that, all too often, all we Athenians have is an after-the-fact "public scrutiny"—or more accurately, public outcry—as a tool against bad development and/or historical preservation plans. And it's a really crude tool.
Fully frustrated, I composed this juvenile anti-Walmart graphic (above). But I wish I knew how our city—which is seen as being so cool and progressive to people I meet from elsewhere—could develop a vision for our future that would be supportive of new economic development of the sort that would contribute to our better features and our seriously great potential. To me that would be businesses that hired more than minimum-wage workers, provided high calibre products and services, and helped to foster—rather than just benefit from—our cultural frameworks. You know, along the lines of a Blue Heron River District.
Because of his experience and insight, I'll conclude here with Jacob Lindsey's follow-up comments, questions and suggestions:
"It's worth mentioning that Charleston's tradition of public development review starts at the conceptual stage and typically has 2 or 3 phases, if all goes well. Some projects can stay in public review phase for years if the developers can't get things right. This attitude is a often a problem for "good" projects, and can be politically manipulated to fight personal vendettas, but in general has prevented the city from being wrecked over the past 70 years.
"Unfortunately Wal-Mart is the 'worst of the worst' when it comes to development practices, so the only option is to fight and kill the project.
"How far along is the project? Does it require a rezoning or variances? Where can opposition groups apply pressure?
"I think some enlightened and motivated Athenians should form a shadow government of public review sessions, exposing every development project to the public in an unofficial way. Setup a venue for the public critique of development projects and invite an outside expert panel to review them (I'll volunteer!). Vince Graham did this when he created the 'East Cooper Planning Council,' which he used to help influence the design of streets in Mt. Pleasant a few years ago."