Last Call: Creating the heart of a town

Last Call
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Hiltomarc_freyn Head has an opportunity to establish a real town center — but it’ll take everyone’s cooperation.

Every community has its pivotal moments, times when it must make fundamental decisions that will affect its evolution for years to come.

For Charleston, one of those moments came with the decision to build the Charleston Place hotel, restaurant and shopping center. It was a watershed moment that encouraged the restoration and revitalization of the entire area.
For Savannah, the decision to encourage SCAD to expand its downtown campus over several blocks led to the restoration of numerous buildings and helped revitalize the core of the city — a core that now boasts new restaurants, shops, art galleries and music venues. That’s especially encouraing given that just 20 years ago downtown Savannah would have given even the heartiest soul the blues; most shops had migrated south to the mall area, leaving only empty streets and empty buildings downtown.

Indeed, both cities have been able to boost their images as some of America’s most desirable places to visit, which has helped their hospitality and retail industries re-establish themselves and thrive.

Now, Hilton Head Island has its own once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a town center — and a heart of the community. I’m talking about the area from Chaplin Park to Broad Creek and the area between U.S. 278 and Broad Creek from the cemetery at the intersection of Mathews Drive all the way to Shelter Cove Marina. You could look at it as two adjoining plans: the “Beach to the River Connection” and the “Broad Creek Walk.”

Imagine a place where open spaces, parks, a new Rec Center, an art and conference center, learning institutes, restaurants, shopping and living opportunities would blend harmoniously into a large master-planned core area. This area could include a long riverwalk where residents and visitors could stroll, jog or bike and enjoy the marsh and water views. It could allow people to live, work, shop, learn, eat and meet; it could create an energy center and gathering place. It could maximize our natural assets and set a new mode for what Hilton Head Island is best-known for: master planning with a long-range vision.

The opportunity exists. The town already owns and controls large tracts of land in this area (namely three undeveloped parcels that front Broad Creek and total more than 20 acres) and the Shelter Cove Park.  The Mall, which is another important component of this plan, will have to be redeveloped anyway to maximize the usefulness of this tract of land.

What we need now is a grand vision and a plan than can help us visualize what is possible and what would make sense. Once this is in place the stakeholders and the public can give their feedback. Assuming that the initial feedback supports the general idea the hard part begins. It will take the cooperation of everybody involved in order to make this happen. It won’t be easy and some concessions will need to be made from all sides, but if it is successful it will have a very positive outcome for the entire community.

This area is truly the largest on the island that needs to be master-planned. But here is the key: If we do not master-plan the entire area we will end up with pieces and patches, and the result will be very unsatisfying. Only a grand plan for the entire core area will allow us to make the best of this opportunity and create the heart of Hilton Head Island worthy of its name.