Traffic crawls in the eastbound lanes of Interstate 26 near West Montague Avenue in North Charleston on Thursday morning. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff
Seattle, the rainy Pacific Northwest city that’s the other home of Boeing, has seen the most rapid population growth among America’s largest cities since 2010.
"Add up all the population gains since 2010 and Seattle has grown by a staggering 18.7 percent," Gene Balk of the Seattle Times said in a May 24 column, when new census estimates were made public.
It’s easy to imagine Mount Pleasant saying, "Hah, hold my beer."
Mount Pleasant is nowhere near the size of Seattle, but the Census Bureau also counts it as a large city, and Mount Pleasant has grown much faster than Seattle since 2010, with a 27.5 percent increase in population.
Not that it’s a contest, or a rivalry between Seattle and the Charleston area — not like when Seattle mocked the idea of assembling Boeing airplanes in South Carolina, and then North Charleston was chosen over the Seattle area as home for Boeing’s second assembly plant in 2009.
It’s more of a question. Are the pressures that come with rapid growth — traffic, crowded schools, soaring home prices, diminished quality of life — due to how fast the population grows, or the number of people added to the population?
“Certainly, if you’re talking about housing, the rate of growth has more to do with it than the number," said Cooper Martin, director of the Sustainable Cities Institute at the National League of Cities. “With housing, what would typically happen is, a population moving in tends to buy up less expensive housing, taking away from low-income housing stock.
“And if you have to go farther to afford a house, you’re probably going to spend more time on the road, adding to traffic congestion," he said.
And that’s a good description of what’s been happening in the Charleston area, where rents and home prices have soared, and growth has been radiating out from the urban core to north Mount Pleasant, Goose Creek, Hanahan and Summerville.
A November analysis of apartment rental data by The Post and Courier concluded that "The share of affordable units has been shrinking rapidly across the entire region, mirroring what’s happening in San Francisco, Denver, Seattle and other big cities."
Since 2010 Summerville has gained population faster than Denver, Colorado, the nation’s third-fastest-growing major city. North Charleston’s grown as fast as San Antonio. In the Upstate, Greenville has grown as quickly as Atlanta.
Census Bureau estimates say South Carolina’s population exceeded 5 million in 2017. Residents relocating from other states has been the primary driver of the growth. Staff
Martin said many large cities are better suited to handle growth because they have high-density centers, and established mass transit networks.
“If you have a large area, and it grows by 2 percent, people might not notice because it’s a large area and it’s easier to absorb them," said Michael Macfarlane, South Carolina’s census program manager at the State Data Center. "It shows up quicker in a small area, even though the numerical number may be smaller."
“The percentage (growth) is the more important thing," Macfarlane said. "It’s the rate of change."
Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie said that when westbound Interstate 526 — one of the only routes connecting Mount Pleasant to the rest of the Charleston metro area — was shut down May 14 because of problems with the Wando River bridge, that showed just how much population growth has overwhelmed the region’s infrastructure.
"Look at the mess we are in from losing just two lanes of traffic," he said.
The estimated 18,703 residents Mount Pleasant added from mid-2010 to mid-2017 is only slightly more than Seattle gained in the last year alone, 17,490 people. But in Mount Pleasant, the pace of growth has upset residents enough that they replaced most of the elected government, the town slapped a moratorium on apartment development, and development fees were roughly quadrupled.
“I have told the (Charleston Regional Development Alliance) executive committee that my concern is that our area will choke on our own success," Haynie said. "We just have to be careful."
Boeing’s final assembly facility in North Charleston on Sunday, March 25, 2018. File/Wade Spees/Staff
Of course, some of the Charleston area’s growth has been attributed to all the jobs created by Boeing, which the area won from Seattle.