By Simmons B. Buntin
I’On Village is a traditional neighborhood development along the Cooper River that at full build-out will be comprised of six residential boroughs tucked around the soft elbows of lazy creeks and shallow wetlands.
Anchored by I'On Square—the urban village center featuring local shops and offices—the 243-acre site will include over 760 energy-efficient homes constructed in Carolina Lowcountry style and set close to thin streets alongside wide sidewalks and gray-bearded oaks. The community's infrastructure not only supports pedestrians as the primary mode of transit and recreation within the boroughs, it also has real plans for linking to nearby civic facilities, including schools, libraries, and hospitals.
Construction began only 18 months ago due to stiff resistance and concern over density from adjacent residents. Yet I'On Village is already "wonderfully exquisite," says Cornelius, N.C., assistant town manager Craig Lewis. While the opposition was "out in full force, now they all drive their friends through" the evolving village.
Building from successes of other neotraditional developments across the Southeast-and most importantly from the historic integrity of nearby Charleston, Savannah, and the Old Village of Mt. Pleasant and Beaufort-I'On builds from, rather than over, Mt. Pleasant's natural landscape and architectural history.
I'On Village is named after Jacob Bond I'On, a planter, U.S. Army and militia officer, and state legislator who descended from the Bond line that established Hobcaw Plantation, the site of the current village, around 1730. I'On died in 1859 and was buried beside his wife at the family cemetery which resides a half mile north of the I'On Village office.
While the Hobcaw Plantation changed hands many times even before I'On's death-mostly farmed and often termed the "Cottage Tract" within the Maybank, Bond, and Read families-its future as a neotraditional development was not envisioned until 1995, when Vince and Thomas Graham purchased the property. The I'On monument at the cemetery was restored by the I'On Company and Historic Resource Management, Inc., in October 1996. The cemetery was formally rededicated to the memory of the Maybank, Read, Bond, and I'On families in December 1996.
The I'On Trust
I'On Village is founded not only on architectural integrity and sound planning principles, but also the understanding that cultural and environmental resources must be sustained in concert with sidewalks, roads, and buildings. With the establishment of the the I'On Company, a non-profit entity was also created to enhance the village's civic life. The I'On Trust supports programs for artists and scholars, presenting concerts, exhibits, and literary events in I'On and throughout the East Cooper region of South Carolina. The Trust seeks ways to improve South Carolina's communities by facilitating an exchange of knowledge about the built environment and, in particular, sensible growth principles. This exchange occurs through Trust-sponsored conferences, workshops, and forums. The Trust's programs inform specialists, decisionmakers, and students, as well as the broader public.
Specifically, the I'On Trust's goals are to:
Challenging Public Process
Despite assurances from a development team comprised of some of the biggest names in New Urbanism, and local support from planners and historians, Vince Graham and the I'On Company—experienced in such neotraditional developments as Newpoint and Broad Street in nearby Beaufort, S.C., and North Cove in Peachtree City, Ga.—faced considerable opposition from Mt. Pleasant neighbors set against the types of densities required in traditional neighborhood developments. A recent review of I'On's progress by Charleston's The Post and Courier, in fact, found that the words "I'On" and "controversy" appear in nearly twenty letters, columns, and stories in the newspaper over the past two years.
But while there "may have been questions in the beginning about what the quality was going to be like," said I'On marketing director Chris Anderson, "once we had vertical product, it became easy to see what we're all about. After the planning and permitting process was finally approved, everything settled down," he added. "I think we've pleasantly surprised some people in that we're actually doing what we said we were going to to."
I'On's success has been recognized by the industry, as well. In March 1999 the I'On Company was named Charleston's Developer of the Year.
I'On's Design Philosophy
Concern from the new community's neighbors has been so adequately stemmed for three reasons. First, those areas of I'On Village that are already developed are true to the attractive Lowcountry Vernacular of downtown Charleston and other historic communities. Robert Behre, architectural historian for The Post and Courier, writes that the I'On home designs "feature a strong verticality not normally found in the suburbs. Each [home] seems distinct, not some knock-off or slight variation of the one down the street. There's little obvious duplication, and that may be partly because the subtle bends in the roads and creative siting don't lend onlookers to easy side-by-side comparison."
Second, as with nearly all neotraditional developments, property value has soared since the initial infrastructure, streetscaping, and homes were put in place. By October 1999, homes built only in January and February 1998 had appreciated in value 40 to 50 percent, helping to boost home values across the area.
But perhaps most importantly, the I'On Company began with a design philosophy that laid the framework for all that I'On Village has and will become. The Company's vision is contained in its Founder's Declaration:
The builders at I'On subscribe to a simple, specialized set of building rules that pay careful attention to building sites, proportion, and materials. The rules, known as the I'On Code, place emphasis on a group of highly skilled professionals—designers, builders, architects, craftspeople, and subcontractors. The Code includes covenants, conditions, and restrictions each builder must follow in order to "encourage civility within the neighborhood and interaction between residents, accept individual lifestyles and rights, and enhance cultural aspects of life." Additionally, an I'On design committee reviews all construction and landscape plans for houses.
The I'On Code is upheld by the I'On Guild, a group of 13 builders who were selected to be the exclusive builders of homes in I'On Village. The Guild was assembled by the I'On Company to encourage a high level of construction quality, facilitate good communications between the developer and the building team, and promote a sense of continuous improvement among all those involved in shaping the public and private realms. Criteria for I'On Guild members include financial stability, quality building practices and craftsmanship, client and trade references, experience, enthusiasm for the I'On philosophy, and customer service. Since its inception, the Guild has also added architects, landscape architects, designers, and craftspeople "who share in the I'On philosophy of quality and sustainability," according to the I'On Company.
The community of I'On Village is further formalized by the I'On Assembly, which serves as the homeowners association. With responsibilities such as common area maintenance, street landscaping, and insurance requirements, the group is likely to undertake fiscal and physical challenges as well as social events.
The Village Core and Neighborhood Amenities
I'On Square, which serves as the neighborhood's commercial and civic core, will house more than 30,000 square feet of offices and retail space, including a salon, interior design store, and I'On offices. For the next building, space is 100 percent pre-leased, and prospective tenants include restaurants, retail shops, and offices. It will be completed in spring 2000. Eventually, the Square could house civic structures, such as a post office or charter school.
The I'On Club-a private swim and tennis facility-is scheduled to open between the Ionsborough and Eastlake boroughs in the summer of 2000. The Club will offer six lighted, clay tennis courts, a junior Olympic swimming pool, a wading pool, a classically designed two-story clubhouse, locker rooms, and meeting rooms. Membership is open to all I'On Village residents as well as the general public.
The Eastlake Boathouse was I'On's first civic structure. Overlooking the 12-acre Eastlake, the structure has a pavilion and is surrounded by linear parks that skirt the lake. The Boathouse also has sailboat and kayak storage.
I'On Village's streetscaping and urban design define the neighborhood perhaps most of all. The neighborhood is introduced at it's main entrance by a traditional roundabout, rather than a conventional stoplight. From there, the streets are "deliberately cranky and deliberately skinny," according to town planner Victor Dover of Dover, Kohl & Partners. Combined with brick and concrete sidewalks and street trees ranging from elegant palms to wide-trunked oaks, it's obvious that the pedestrian is given priority over the automobile. Another indication: granite block curbs, an idea borrowed from the area near Charleston's Visitor Center, both narrow and raise the intersections, enabling pedestrians to cross streets more safely.
"The public realm is incredibly important. It's the most important thing," says developer Vince Graham. Eight sites have been reserved for civic uses, such as small churches or other community buildings.
Preserving I'On's Natural Heritage
Water, and the diverse species living in and among it, define I'On Village. Either by the narrow streams that drain I'On's northern boundary with Hobcaw Creek, the Cooper River, and eventually Charleston Harbor, or by the natural wetlands and manmade lakes that finger through the neighborhood in a pattern that create as natural a drainage as possible, the human and other species of I'On Village are never far from the freshwater that molds the South Carolina Lowcountry.
The most notable preservation effort by the I'On Company is the Rookery, a five-acre slough tucked at the southern end of the neighborhood, between Ponsbury and Ionsborough. Lined with nesting boxes and inviting foliage, the preserve is home to migratory waterfowl and other wildlife, including egrets and herons, ducks and geese, and native mammals and fish. The Rookery is sheltered from houses by a buffer of wetlands and natural vegetation, as well as one of the community's many trails.
Westlake and Eastlake are I'On's two lakes, separate by dual canals upon which Graham plans a set of homes that will create a "Venice in the Lowcountry" look, integrating the watery edges of the narrow canals with the hard edges of the urban landscape.
And in true neotraditional manner, natural and landscaped parks are integrated across the neighborhood. A combination soccer field and children's playground is within eyeshot of a dozen front porches but also a stone's throw from natural wetlands. Crisscrossing all of these are miles of walking and marshfront paths.
Homes and Boroughs
I'On Village's six residential boroughs, which are being developed from east to west, create the neighborhood's urban fabric. The boroughs are Shelmore, Eastlake, Ponsbury, Ionsborough, Westlake, and Montrose. They are set on traditional neighborhood development patterns that include an interconnected network of narrow streets with view corridors that end at worthy sites (public buildings or open spaces or impressive houses), user-friendly sidewalks set off the street, garages on alleys or otherwise relegated to the backs of lots, thin lots that bring homes closer together to enhance opportunities for social interaction, lots of public spaces and access to neighborhood features such as lakes and parks, and regional orientation (both in architecture and site planning).
House architecture, in fact, is inspired by Lowcountry Vernacular design, borrowing from the best—and most appropriate—styles of Charleston, Savannah, and nearby Mt. Pleasant Old Village. The homes include deep porches, or "outside rooms," that face the street, high ceilings to allow for cross ventilation, tall windows to capture breezes, and, according to the I'On Company, "a sense of motion and space even in the smallest houses." Indigenous materials—those that age gracefully—are coupled with energy efficiency and sound construction to ensure the homes, most of which are custom-built, withstands the tests of time.
The gathering of these classically styled homes along well-scaled streets results in a more than just a series of narrow-lot homes. The Post and Courier praises that I'On's Eastlake area looks like the Colonial Lake area in downtown Charleston, a high complement.
With I'On's ten-minute access to downtown Charleston and built and natural amenities, it should come as no surprise that the homes are well above the area median. Builder homes range from $269,000 to $650,000 while custom homes range from $300,000 to more than $1 million. Homesites begin at $43,500 and reach more than $295,000.
Life Magazine named I'On Village the site for its 2000 Dream Home, which is a design by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company Architects and Town Planners. The house, which "is designed to evolve in phases that reflect the evolution of the American family," according to architect Andres Duany, will be featured in Life's September 2000 issue, as well as a 13-part Bob Vila television production.
Though only through the first phases of construction, it is already apparent that I'On Village is both exceeding expectations and creating new ones. With built communities to match the natural landscapes, I'On is fulfilling a vision to reestablish the soul, connection, and workability of the best early coastal towns.
For more information, visit the I'On Village website at www.ionvillage.com.
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