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Can Ansonborough survive as a residential community?

Warwick Jones, Editor

Ansonborough is an integral part of the historic section of the City of Charleston. But its relevance and importance will diminish if the development nibbling at its fringes continues. The shadows cast by the developments on Meeting and Calhoun Streets touch the residential area. Other developments may cast longer shadows.

Ansonborough does not have the long streets of tree-shaded ante-bellum houses as "below Broad". But it is essentially a residential neighborhood with many fine houses. Although it might suffer in comparison with the finest historic area in Charleston, it stands out compared to all of the other historic communities. Unfortunately, some sections have not escaped the ravages of time. In the early part of the last century some buildings had badly decayed and were replaced with structures that do less-than-justice to the surrounding Georgian and Federal style buildings. So there is not the uniformity of old buildings as "below Broad".

Cut off from other residential neighborhoods
The problem for Ansonborough is that it is cut-off from the other historical and residential parts of the city. The retail and business corridors of Market, Meeting, Calhoun Streets and East Bay Streets define its boundaries. And in broad sense, its southern boundary is charred by an accident of history. The fires that ravaged Charleston in the latter half of the Eighteenth Century, lay waste much of the area south Market Street. For whatever reason, nothing much of architectural interest has ever been built to replace what was lost in the fires.

Scars from development and student housing
Ansonborough now is a residential island, bearing scars at its fringes of incursions of retail, commercial, hotel and condominium development. With the growth of Charleston over recent years, these retail and commercial corridors sought to grow and adjust. And because these corridors already have been developed, re-development more often than not means an increase in building heights. Not all of this development is necessarily bad. We may need it to make Charleston a "complete" city. But the new structures are often offending and out of harmony with the surrounding areas. Ansonborough also houses the County School Board Building, Galliard Auditorium, and a parking garage on Calhoun Street, structures that are large and conspicuously purpose-built. It also contains stables for the horses that pull the carriages catering to tourists. And not too far to the east of Ansonborough, are the Aquarium and the Dockside high-rise.

The borough also bears scars of students. Not that they cause the damage. It is the fact that landlords of those houses that are broken up to rent to students, do not have the pride of ownership of owner-occupiers. Indeed, there are some houses that are very scrappy. The College of Charleston is a short walk from the borough and very convenient for students. Fortunately, the College has capped its enrollment so the pressure for student housing should not increase.

Residents suspicious about City Administration
Folklore holds that the mayor cares little for Ansonborough because the area has been conspicuous in its opposition to him. Residents note that they still have electric light poles and visible wiring when "below Broad" has electricity conducted underground. We didn't check with the mayor for we are certain he will deny any animosity to the borough or its residents. And it is our observation that a good many people in Ansonborough do support him. But with his unwavering plan to develop the green space called Ansonborough Field, probably for retailing, restaurants and housing, the number of his supporters could diminish.

Citizens active in preserving neighborhood
The citizens of Ansonborough have recognized the fragility of their neighborhood and have come together to oppose many proposed developments. They fought and succeeded in stopping a condominium development and the opening of a Chinese restaurant. They also are opposing the conversion of a house to stables and variances to zoning requirements at the Chapter II site where a developer is hoping to construct a 60,000 sq ft building. These issues are still being discusses and many residents are confident they will succeed in their efforts. But these actions require energy - letters to Boards and Commissions, presentations, speeches and not least of all, vigilance. The notice that is required for a B.A.R, Zoning Board or Planning Commission hearing is a week. This is little time to organize a neighborhood, particularly if it is the middle of summer or over a holiday period - and this has been noticed by interested developers.

Fortunately, the Historic Charleston Foundation and the Preservation Society have supported residents in many of the issues before public boards and commissions. The Foundation and the Society have a genuine interest in the borough and indeed hold covenants over many properties that require the retention of existing structures. However, even with the support of these organizations, there is a strong risk that the character of Ansonborough will change. It will become less an island but more a fortress surrounded by tall buildings, and cut off from other residential areas.

City lowers height restrictions downtown
The city has made its building code more restrictive along Meeting and King Streets with a height limit of 50 ft for that part of the structure from the kerb to a depth of 100 ft. on the lot and 80 ft on the balance. This is applauded. But what is not generally realized is that this change will make little difference. There are few buildings on Meeting Street that approach the new limits of 50 ft and 80 ft respectively. The new limit theoretically still allows development of buildings much higher than existing ones. And any new building literally could easily cast its shadow well into the heart of the residential section. But it now lies solely with the B.A.R and Zoning Board as to whether any development that stretched to the new height limits will be acceptable.

But raising them in Ansonborough Field area
The City now is trying to raise the building height limit at Ansonborough Field to 70 ft. And there is no doubt that new buildings will attain that height. The Planning Commission said it required more time to study the plan and it implications. For us, the implications are easy to fathom. The mayor is intent on developing Ansonborough Field despite the fact that the City lacks green space.

Why does the City want this development? We can only speculate; is it to help the city finances by selling the site to a developer? Or is it designed to help the profitability of the Aquarium? With retail and restaurant activities along this part of Calhoun Street, the City may hope to attract more visitors to the area. These visitors should be tempted to visit the aquarium and patronize the associated retail facilities, thereby lifting the now sorry economic returns on both the Aquarium and nearby parking garage. The City says that the new development will only take up part of Ansonborough Field and that the buildings along Calhoun Street will balance those on the other side.

FEMA regulations complicate development
The economics of the Ansonborough Field development itself are made questionable by the fact that the park falls into a FEMA defined "flood" zone and, therefore the first floor of any structure cannot be permanently occupied. Parking and storage are uses that are permitted but the City feels that the space could be better utilized. It hopes to encourage the use of dining facilities, tied to restaurants on the first floor, or retailing, possibly from barrows that can be moved or secured at night. This issue is one the PlanningCommission is studying.

There are comments on this web site relating to Ansonborough Field and the new height limitations. Suffice it to say many people, in and outside Ansonborough, want the space kept green. There was a petition signed about 2 years ago by 2000 persons requesting retention of the green space. But it has not daunted the City, which continues its intent.

And what about taking traffic off East Bay Street?
And one might ask what happened to the desire of the City to take traffic off East Bay Street and to make Washington Street the major thoroughfare to downtown. This plan was proposed by the City at the Ansonborough Field Charrette nearly 3 years ago. If this plan is realized, then the Ansonborough Field area will become more fully linked to Ansonborough with only a trickle of traffic separating the two instead of a torrent presently. And if the Field becomes more an integral part of Ansonborough, should there be conspicuously different height restrictions?

...and the parking problems of the Borough?
Ansonborough residents feel the pressure of tourists and others. Like most of those downtown, houses generally do not have garages - have you seen a Georgian garage? Many residents have been able to carve driveways out of side passages. In many cases, they park on the street. With more buildings on the boundaries of the Borough, pressure on parking will increase. Already residents are frustrated in their inability to find parking. The future is unlikely to bring relief with a high likelihood of more traffic and greater competition for parking.

Can't the Zoning Boards and Planning Commission do more?
Sadly, people are thinking of moving from the Borough. They are tired of fighting. It does not seem fair, they say, that if we don't always fight, the Zoning Board or Planning Commission will yield to the applicants. Why can't we rely on the Board and Commission to judge applications on their own merits? They know the task before them, they are there to judge the merits of each issue and indeed, they have the laws and regulations in front of them and a City staff to guide them. Residents work and cannot always be at Planning and Zoning meetings that begin at 5 pm, particularly when there is only a few days notice. People can't organize in such a short time.

Property values are generally lower than those "below Broad". How much lower is arguable but we estimate that comparable properties would probably sell for 20% more "below Broad" than in Ansonborough. People are prepared to pay a premium for an environoment unsullied by development, and likely to remain so. With some threatening to leave the neighborhood, Ansonborough residents are asking where property values are going with all the development on the borough's fringes and the inability of residents to find spaces to park cars.

A sense of helplessness and frustration ...
Residents have a sense of helplessness, and a feeling that the City does not really care. Better quit the neighborhood now before it does become a fortress whose center sees little sun because of high structures, a residential relic whose streets are filled with cars and whose purpose is largely a thoroughfare for tourists and workers.

The "Family Y" development slipped through the cracks.
An example of the frustration was the decision by the Planning Commission to allow a condominium development entailing 74 units on George Street on the 1.05 acre site of the present Family "Y". Anybody passing along George Street, or more likely stuck in traffic, will concede that this sort of development is not going to help traffic flow or the appearance of the neighborhood. The units will be immediately in front of the new College of Charleston basketball court. And 74 condominiums in such a confined area, and with 112 parking spaces as well!

The development does not fall within Ansonborough but is close enough to matter. Many residents are opposed to this development but nobody spoke before the Commission. Why? Because most thought it was a simple change in zoning. They did know of the high density development that was being considered. And besides, those who could get away from work or other duties were at that time arguing against the height increase at Ansonborough Field. But why couldn't the Planning Commission see what it was approving? Or was it hoping the B.A.R will do the dirty work for it and reject the structures.

Too bad for Ansonborogh residents and tourists
Too bad for Ansonborough! A lot of people have invested heavily in their houses and gardens. Judging by the carriage tours, the tourists like Ansonborough a lot. There are also many house and garden tours. Ansonborough contributes much to the welfare of the City. I hope in the future that people will be able to view Ansonborough as a pretty residential community. However, it is this charm that catalyses the cancer of development. As the cancer spreads, the attraction of the borough will diminish for both residents and developers. And finally when the body is consumed, its residential charm could be only a memory.

So can Ansonborough survive as a residential community? Probably it can, but it will require constant vigilance on the part of its residents to oppose or restrain some of the developments on its fringes and within its boundaries. There is no question that the will exists in the community. But there is also a feeling that the community is also fighting the City.

But the issues embrace all of Charleston not only Ansonborough
And this feeling of "fighting the City" is shared with many residents elsewhere in Charleston. The City talks of planned growth, green space, preservation of the historic districts, and livability. But somehow each year, there is a new ugly building here and another somewhere else. And the skyline, once of old historic buildings, altered again by rows of condominiums. And traffic and parking problems increase as tourists numbers double every 12 years or so. And there is still no new green space?

So how much does the City really care? We can't answer that question but we are certain that residents of the City need to be vigilant in observing what is happening in the community, and more vocal in opposing developments that detract from its historic ambience.

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