John Knott: Urban Planning

When John L. Knott Jr. talks about Noisette—his project to redevelop 3,000 acres in depressed North Charleston, South Carolina, over the next 20 years—he doesn’t sound like a man preaching a radical mission. In fact his reasoned tone suggests a motivation so simple as to be obvious: it’s the right thing to do. But what Knott is proposing is actually a paradigm shift in the way we craft urban spaces: a city partnering with a developer to create a community that is both just and sustainable—a holistic district where mixed-income housing, socially motivated businesses, lively common spaces, and corrective infrastructure emerge from the footprint of an industrially and economically blighted suburb.

Knott is a third-generation developer from the family that famously helped revitalize Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. While the restoration of urban spaces is more or less part of his genetic code, he came to sustainable development—and the Charleston area—in the early 1990s through the much celebrated Dewees Island project. When given a chance to build on the 1,206-acre barrier island, Knott began as he would at any other site, with an inventory of assets—in this case a pristine natural setting. His team of architects and landscape designers delicately positioned about 60 homes on only 76 acres, dealing with construction, heating and ventilation, water conservation, and waste management in ways that allow the island to function ecologically as if it is uninhabited by people.

Afterward Knott wanted to apply what he had learned there to more familiar territory. “The nonprofit board of directors came to me and said, ‘Dewees is great, but if you really want this to serve the average person as well as take root and become a force for changing development, it’s going to have to be done in an urban setting,’” Knott recalls. Early meetings with then mayor pro tem Kurt Taylor focused on five blocks around a business corridor, but the scope of the project changed dramatically by the time it was announced in 2001: Knott’s team was to purchase a 350-acre former Navy yard on the Cooper River and master plan the surrounding 2,650-acre Noisette District free of charge, making Noisette—which won an ASLA Award of Excellence—one of the country’s largest redevelopment projects.

It’s impossibly ambitious. In addition to river access (which North Charleston residents haven’t had for more than a century), the Navy base includes the original core of an Olmsted Brothers park and a handful of industrial buildings, including an early nineteenth-century powerhouse. Knott and his team—led by Burt Hill and BNIM Architects—used these features as the starting point. A waterfront public park opened on July 4, and the power plant will be renovated as a cultural and arts center once the final 15 acres of the site are transferred later this year. Toward the end of the year Knott expects to begin restoring the area’s natural ecology and installing infrastructure—the groundwork for a dense urban core that will be contracted in parcels to other developers. Every commercial property will have to meet LEED standards, and all residences will adhere to a Noisette Quality Home Standard, based in part on the guidelines for EarthCraft Houses (see “Sweet Georgia Green,” Metropolis, August/September 2000, p. 46, and “Mainstreaming Green,” August/September 2003, p. 68) and the Dewees homes.

The Navy Yard will be the kind of urban heart that suburban North Charleston has never had. Throughout the district Noisette Quality homes will replace substandard housing and vital improvements will be made, such as the LEED school (the state’s first) that opened last summer. All planning for the district—an area that includes Park Circle, one of the few Garden City models in the United States, and Liberty Hill, one of the state’s historic free black settlements—was done through almost three years of direct community involvement, a process that culminated with neighborhood leaders sitting down with pen in hand to make changes to the plans.

“I’m impressed with his dedication and patience in attempting to codify a series of important issues for sustainable and socially integrated cities,” says critic Michael Sorkin. “He identifies social welfare with a sensitive attitude toward the environment—they go hand in hand for him.”

But ambition of this scale doesn’t come without controversy. Although Knott will only profit directly from the Navy Yard, the unorthodox partnership between North Charleston and Noisette gives him a great deal of influence over the fate of the city. Critics complain that this was a no-bid job; supporters say it was essentially a private sale of 350 acres of land, not a service contract (after all, he’s doing the master planning for free).

Knott prefers to lead by example. “We’re evolving a model that hopefully will become a new way in which community developers and design professionals can work with cities,” he says. “To redevelop a city you have to do it on a large scale, as a set of interconnected systems. Public-sector allowances for design fees are nowhere near adequate to pay for the kind of talent you need. We’re trying to see if this new approach will work.”

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