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Objections to proposed change in some city building heights

Warwick Jones, Editor

Some City residents are very concerned about the proposed changes to building heights in the eastern part of the Peninsula Area. The specific area encompasses East Bay Street to the Cooper River, an area that includes Ansonborough Fields. The proposed changes were outlined by the City's Design Development and Preservation Department in a presentation to the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association on June 9.

The changes proposed in the Ansonborough area were part of a much larger submission by the City to the Planning Commission. Most changes that were proposed were accepted by the Commission but it deferred on the area east of East Bay Street because of the complexity and possible ramifications. It wanted more time to study the proposal.

FEMA regulations a problem
The city planners prefaced their discussion of the Ansonborough Fields area by referring to FEMA regulations. The area east of East Bay Street falls into Zone V defined by regulations. This means that in a major storm, wave action can be expected with rising flood waters. In consequence, any structure that is built on the zone has to have a 1st floor that is 17 ft about mean sea level or in the case of Ansonborough Fields, about 12 ft above the ground. There can be no permanent habitation within the ground floor. To "compensate" for this loss of habitable space, the City wants to allow an increase in the building height in the area, though only under special conditions. Height restrictions generally in the area are presently 50ft or 55 ft. Under the proposal, all structures would have height limit of 55 ft but this limit can increase to 70 ft if the ground floor is utilized in a specific way.

The planners do not feel the word "compensate" is an appropriate word to represent the ability to build higher in exchange for the limited use of the ground floor. Certainly the ground floor space can be used for parking and storage, and these are certainly important components to any development, and consequentl they are not a "loss" to the developer. But they say, it will be a greater loss to the community if parking and storage were the only uses. The planners would like to see activities that improve and enliven the street level on these buildings This could include spaces for dining or retail activities, attractive lobbies and storefront displays. Green spaces along street frontages, created by building setbacks will also count. If all the ground floor could be utilized in these ways, the regulation would allow 25% of the building to have a maximum height of 70ft.

Up to 50% of building could be 70 ft high
But as the Ansonborough residents pointed out, what about lift wells and air conditioners? These would be allowed to go to 70ft as well, and the proportion of the building that could exceed 55 ft could rise to a maximum of 50%, the planners said. To put these heights into perspective, the County Library on Calhoun Street is 68ft, 75 Calhoun is 54 ft but the roof peak 62 ft. The Aquarium is 62 ft but the roof peak is 72 ft. So the new buildings have the potential to be large by Charleston standards.

The ramifications of all of this were discussed. It did not seem a pretty vision - a large area filled with essentially purpose-built structures with potential heights of 70ft. Sure, what developer is not going to promise to fulfill the obligation connected with the ground floor and build the largest structure possible on the sites? Even the planners conceded that enforcing compliance was a possible problem though the City plans to make regulations very tight What will happen to the skyline? What will happen to the breezes that blow from the Cooper River and on to Ansonborough, blocked then by a fortress of large buildings? And why do we need to change the building height to enhance the profitability of development. Let's leave the building heights as they were and "the devil with developer's profits"! And do we need any more development like this on the Peninsula? The environment is being destroyed by traffic and population. The Peninsula is surrounded on the three sides by water or other wise "contained". It will burst if this sort of development is allowed!

Why do we need these changes?
Nobody questioned the planners as to why the City was seeking these changes and why it was so necessary to have higher permissible heights. The planners spoke of an enhanced sky line, but it was doubtful anybody bought that. There remains the certain feeling that these changes are proposed to enhance the development of Ansonborough Field, despite the sizable opposition to the development. Is it that the City needs the money from its development or is it a desire to have a retail corridor along the Field, even of enclosed barrows, to lead people to the Aquarium which sits at the end of Calhoun Street. The aquarium, despite words of optimism from the mayor and others, remains a financial drag on the City. Can a retail corridor improve its performance? We are not sure. But the City should take into account the loss of green space that any development of the Field will incur.

Understandably, the City planners do not agree with much of the the above. They argue that the changes will give more power to the B.A.R to demand better designs and more appealing buildings and generally improve the public realm by improving the relationship of the streets and parks to the ground levels of the new buildings. The changes proposed, they say, will lead to more attractive buildings and more innovation. These new buildings could enhance the skyline, not detract from it.

General support for other changes
The planners in their presentation suggested that citizens should not draw too much from the other changes that were proposed, such as along King and Meeting Streets. In some cases, it was to give uniformity to the regulations. Generally there were modest reductions is allowable building heights and the new standards on the west side of Meeting Street were 30 feet minimum and 55 feet maximum. The maximum previously was 100ft. However, these standards, old and new, apply only to the 100 feet in the front of a lot. Beyond this 100 ft, construction to a height of 100 feet was permitted but is now reduced to 80ft. As the speakers said, there a few buildings on Meeting Street close to a height of 100 ft, even though regulations had allowed construction to this height. The planners pointed out that all new construction has to meet B.A.R. approval and this approval will take into account aesthetics and relative proportion. So considering the generally small scale of the lots along Meeting and King Streets, it is unlikely that an 80 ft tall building would be approved. The Historic Charleston Foundation supported these changes and the City's Planning Commission approved them.

Changes were also proposed in the interiors of the blocks between King Street and St Phillips Street, running from south of Calhoun Street to the Majestic Square building, areas that abut and include parts of the College of Charleston, and more. There have already been a number of developments here and the area has less an air of history. The maximum height was reduced from 100 ft to 80 ft and the minimum height remains at 30 ft. Again the changes were supported by the Historic Charleston Foundation and also approved by the Commission.

Detail overwhelms comprehension
Folk who have seen the submission by the City's DD&P department will concede that the detail overwhelms comprehension. Because of it s nature, the submission had to be detailed and the above summaries are just that. The areas affected are not always contiguous but to discuss the changes, we had to resort to generalities. We were not the only folk to find the changes hard to follow. The Planning Commission is taking its time to fully comprehend the changes in the area around Ansonborough Fields before making its decision.

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