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The Historic Charleston Foundation - Watchdog or tail-waggin' Spaniel?

Warwick Jones, Editor

The Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF) can take pride in the large role it has played in preserving many of the City's historic houses. Over the years it has acquired houses, imposed covenants, and resold the properties to buyers prepared to maintain their historical integrity. It has also played the role of watchdog in BAR, Planning Commission and Zoning Board hearings, often opposing developments that were out of character with the surrounds. As well as these things, it holds house and garden tours that do much to advertise the charm and attraction of our city. So having paid these compliments, there were many of us wondering why the HCF plans to sell the McLeod Plantation property to the American School of Building Arts (SOBA), and why it was so supportive of the City's plan to raise the height restriction in the Ansonborough Field area? Prima facie, we would assume that HCF would have opposed both these moves.

HCF previously opposed increase in height restrictions.
HCF previously opposed increase in height restrictions. Consider these comments made by Mr. Jonathan Poston, a director of the HCF. "The city's visual appearance from the harbor is just being polluted. All you have to do is look at the Cooper River waterfront and there is nothing there but modern condominium building. It's obscuring the character of the City." Mr. Poston was speaking 4 years ago before the BAR and about the request to raise the height limit of Vendue Range from 50 ft to 58 ft.

Then there was the opposition about 2 years ago to a new condominium development near Ansonborough Field where the developer sought permission to go to 65 ft for an elevator shaft and stairs, 15ft more than the then 50ft limit. Mr. Poston was quoted as saying that 15ft was too large a variance and would lead to the "continued erosion of the ordinance."

Mr. Poston was right, the ordinance was eroded
Mr. Poston was right, the ordinance was eroded, for the building limit has now been raised to 70ft in the Ansonborough Field area. And the new ordinance comes with Mr. Poston's and the HCF's endorsement. The following letter was distributed by the City at the time of the first hearing before council. It related to the whole ordinance, not only to that of Ansonborough Field but also to other parts of the City where the height limit was lowered.

"Historic Charleston Foundation is in support of the proposed ordinance amendments before you tonight relating to height regulation in the city. The Foundation, with the specific endorsement of the Board of Trustees, believe the changes to be well reasoned, logical and creative and ones which will better protect the sensitive areas of the city.

Historic Charleston Foundation is particularly in favor of the preamble (the whereas clauses) to the ordinance which provides the reason for the changes as presented. After a meeting in April in which the city staff made a well received presentation on the proposed changes, HCF asked the city to include just such a preamble. This preamble will provide the "spirit" of the law to which later zoning boards might refer when called upon to make decisions about future variance requests.

Historic Charleston Foundation's primary goal is to protect the integrity of Charleston's architectural resources. We believe that this ordinance amendment is a strong step forward."

Why has the HCF become so passive?
But it is more than McLeod and height restrictions. HCF made no attempt to keep Ansonborough Field as green space and did not oppose development of the Field. It was not opposed to the new Judicial Center, the Eckerd Drug Building on Calhoun St. or the Jewish Community Center, all buildings which have generated considerable criticism as unsuitable design for Charleston.

So why has it been so passive?

We spoke to Ms Kitty Robinson, the executive director of HCF. Ms Robinson assumed her position in July 2002. She served on the City's Board of Architectural Review for 6 years and also worked as Development Director for the Porter-Gaud School. We asked her to comment on some of the questionable buildings recently constructed, the support for the McLeod sale, and the height restriction changes.

Ms Robinson denied that the HCF has become passive. It takes its role in the community very seriously. Yes, it did not oppose the developments mentioned earlier but it made suggestions and comments about each at the BAR or Zoning Board hearings as to how the designs could be improved. It did not oppose development of Ansonborough Field because a lot of the Field was to be left as greenspace. It does not have a policy to oppose modern design, and will generally approve construction a modern building if the architecture is excellent.

Why it plans to sell the McLeod Plantation
Ms Robinson said that the HCF bought the property and aggregated the ownership of the McLeod property some years ago. It has spent a considerable amount in maintaining the property but has thought for some time that another owner should be sought to take it to the next stage. The restoration of the wooden building would be expensive and maintaining it and the grounds would be more that the HCF could bear, or want to bear considering its other obligations. It approached the City and County a number of times offering to sell the property at cost and although both entities expressed interest, they said they did not have the funds to restore or maintain the property. As well, it spoke to the National Trust who would have been interested only if the sale came with an endowment to maintain the property. Yes, there had been a number of people who had approached the HCF to buy the property but they did not meet all of the conditions set by the HCF, the most important of which was public access to the property in perpetuity.

So in the opinion of HCF, there really was no alternative to the SOBA offer. The public will have access to the property and because the HCF is imposing tight covenants, the public need not fear any unsightly development.

And support for the new Height restrictions?
As far as the new height restrictions are concerned, Ms Robinson said the support for the City stemmed from the observation that the Zoning Boards were allowing so many variances in property heights that firmer and stricter lines had to be drawn. The HCF agreed to the higher height limitation of 70ft in the Ansonborough Field area (subject to certain conditions) but said that it was adamantly opposed to any variance to allow a structure to reach higher. It would vigorously oppose any such variance.

We don't take issue with Mr. Poston in relation to "protecting the sensitive areas of the city" where the height restriction was lowered, but we fail to see the protection that was afforded to the Ansonborough Field area where the building limit was increased. Why didn't the HCF seek firmer and stricter enforcement at the 55 ft height limit?

Councilmen unaware that City was offered McLeod
Interestingly, the purchase of the Mc Leod plantation was placed high on the City Planning Departments "wish list" two years ago. We checked with two council members as to whether they recall the City being offer the McLeod Plantation. They had no recollection of any discussion and wondered whether the offer was made to the Mayor who judged that purchase was not possible. It was never discussed in a council meeting, they say.

Some inconsistency in views
In our view, there seems some inconsistency in the HCF's attitude. It won't sell to private interests because the uncertainty of public access but will sell to SOBA. But SOBA must comply with the covenants that the HCF applies. Why couldn't the same covenants apply to a private group with the same consequences? Or maybe it is about the financial solidity of the respective groups? There may have been more promise than substance to the financial backing of any of the private groups that wanted to retain McLeod. But does that make them much different to SOBA. SOBA is looking to receiving grants to make the purchase and undertake necessary construction for school facilities. How more certain is the school of receiving funding that are the private entities? And the opponents of the sale to SOBA state that they are better progressed in obtaining funding now than in the weeks before the issue came before the Planning Commission. They also point out that they will need less funding than SOBA which will have to fulfill all of the restoration and maintenance expense as well as financing class-rooms and associated facilities.

Some questions about SOBA
A lot of people feel very uncomfortable about SOBA's potential acquisition of McLeod. Its present campus, the Old City jail does not convey an impression of good stewardship - the grounds are unsightly with scattered materials. It is interesting that SOBA is not an accredited school in South Carolina though has applied for such. In its request to the State it has said that it must raise possibly as much as $20 million to "convert the former plantation into a campus." So far it has raised about $1 million in grants and has applied for another $3.37 million from the US Department of Labor. All this money to provide facilities for less than 200 students and for courses that are arguably not far removed from those available at technical colleges in the County! And to say nothing about the near $20 million scar that construction could leave on the Plantation!

We also note that, as yet, we have not seen the covenants that the HCF will impose on the Plantation's new owners. The Friends of McLeod, the recently formed group seeking to save the Plantation, state that its interested buyers are also prepared to meet all the covenants imposed by HCF. But of course, as no substantial construction is anticipated, meeting the obligations will not be arduous. The Friends also state that public access will be guaranteed.

Ms Robinson responded to the above by saying that HCF is comfortable with SOBA as the purchaser. There is a commonality with HCF in purpose and mission. She also said that financing for the purchase was moving ahead and that she did not think that this was going to be a problem for SOBA. Yes, the covenants had not yet been made public but there was nothing sinister in this. The covenants in large part would be identical to those it places on all of its historical buildings. In the case of McLeod, they would include restrictions on the location of new buildings on the site and these were now being better defined. The field beside the house which "contains" so much history will be left intact.

So far, HCF had not seen any proposition from Friends of McLeod to buy the property. But she noted that a contractual relationship exists betwen HCF and SOBA in relation to the sale. Presumbaly, there could be legal questions if HCF decided to break the contract.

SOBA confident of financing
As for SOBA, Mr David AvRutick, executive director states that he has high hopes of obtaining the necessary financing. He also notes that the acquisition of McLeod has been "endorsed as an appropriate adaptive venue " by the Smithsonian Institute and the National Trust. He is also has been encouraged by support by many historical and preservation societies who will need the graduates of SOBA to help renovate historic structures. Mr AvRutick claims that SOBA is the only school in the US that provides training in the building arts relating to historical structures.

SOBA's 990 returns to the IRS indicate that the school raised nearly $800,000 in 2003 and $946,000 in 2002 by way of government grants and direct public support. Mr AvRutick said that the school was still on a growing curve and had not yet reached its full potential. Also there would not be a scar from the spending of $20 million on construction on McLeod.

Trustees chosen by a nominating committee
We thought that maybe there is a close association between the HCF and Mayor Riley and that he may have influenced the trustees of the HCF in recent decisions. But unlike most committees and commissions in the City, the Mayor does not have a role, at least directly, in appointing trustees to the HCF board. Candidates for the position of Trustee are chosen by a nominating committee of 5 members. These members are appointed by the President and all must be either Trustees of the Board or past Presidents. The board certainly has members who are conspicuous supporters of Mayor Riley and it is easy to see how he could wield some influence. But it is not direct as in the case of the City Planning Commission or Zoning Boards say where he and the City Council make the appointments.

Ms Robinson took strong exception to any suggestion that the board could be influenced by Mayor Riley. She adamantly stated that the board was independent and acted in the best interests of HCF in achieving its objectives.

According to the last Annual Report of the HCF, there were 25 trustees of the HCF. The Articles of Association states that there must be between 20 to 30 trustees. A quorum consists of half the trustees. Trustees are elected for 3 years terms but can serve three full terms i.e. 9 years, before the need to step down. After waiting a year, an individual can serve again as trustee despite having served 3 terms.

Below is a list of the present trustees and officers of the HCF. Those trustees that have joined the Board in the last 4 years are marked *.

T Heywood Carter Jr.................Susan Friberg *
VICE PRESIDENT......................W Foster Gaillard *
Frank W Brumley......................Gail A Gilbert
SECRETARY..............................Mariana R Hay *
Sallie M Sinkler.........................Douglas B Lee
TREASURER..............................Richard M Lilly *
John F Maybank.........................Richard D Marks III *
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR..............Susan P Parsell *
Katherine S Robinson................Celeste H Patrick *
TRUSTEES................................Carol C Pelzer *
W.E.Applegate..........................Bernard E Powers Jr
Nathaniel I Ball III......*.............Helen Pratt-Thomas
Thomas R Bennett.....................Henry l Ravenel *
Homer Burrows..........*.............Margot T Rose
Marion R Cato........... *.............Richard W Salmon Jr
Catherine H Forrester *.............Anne F Smith
...............................................Vanessa Turner-Maybank
...............................................Brad J Waring

Financially HCF doing well
Financially, HCF has been able to keep its head well above water over recent years, though no doubt it could use more funds in its mission. According to the 990 form submitted to the IRS, the book value of its assets at the end of 2003 was $15.1 million but with the deduction of mortgages, notes payable and other liabilities of $2.26million, net assets amounted to $12.86 million. The assets of HCF largely are represented by its offices on East Bay Street, the McLeod Plantation, the Aiken-Rhett House, the Nathaniel Russell House and 108 Meeting Street. Included in these assets is a stock and bond portfolio of $3.2 million.

In 2003, HCF received gifts and grants equal to $547,000. This is well down on previous years and probably reflects the state of the economy. Because of a change in balance date, a direct comparison with 2002 is not possible. But in both 2000 and 1999, gifts and grants were running above $1 million. However, despite the poor economy, program service revenue was strong in 2003, running at $2 million. This was supplemented by the income derived from the shops that sell HCF reproductions. In 2003, these retail operations made a profit of $692,000. Overall, taking into account all running expenses, the HCF ended the year with a surplus on all operations of $452,000.

Preservation Society plays large role in preservation as well
The revenues and expenses of HCF exceed those of the Preservation Society of Charleston. There are many similarities in the purpose of the groups and as the name implies, the latter is concerned primarily with preservation. Both organizations make a point of making presentations before City Council, boards and commissions when there are important issues at stake. However, the Society is not involved in the running and maintenance of old houses or museums though both entities maintain retailing outlets and conduct house and garden tours.

In 2003, the PS received $645,000 in grants and generated service revenue - from garden and house tours - of $342,000. Its retail operations made a proifit of $106,000. Both organizations have full time staff but the PS has fewer than HCF.

But accountability is different
There is also another important difference between the two societies. In a sense, the Society is "owned" by the donors who become members by making a donation. These members form volunteer committees - for finance, planning and zoning etc.- and members of these committees nominate members to serve on the Board. The full membership of the Society votes for the directors of the Board at the Society's annual meeting. This contrasts with the HCF which is controlled by the Trustees. The Trustees are chosen essentially by the Trustees. So there is little accountability beyond the Board.

For the record, the Society was not pleased about the changes in height restrictions in the Ansonborough Field area. It would have supported a small percentage increase to 70ft if meaningful activity could be provided on the ground floor and if it would give variety to the roof lines. It also was concerned about the height increase impact on surrounding buildings. However, it did favor the acquisition of the McLeod Plantation by SOBA. In relation to the latter, the Society closely studied the proposal by the HCF and found it "worthy of support."

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