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Clemson School of Architecture

Time for a reality check
What are the City and Clemson playing at?
Warwick Jones, Editor

Neighborhood design, building design, and infill and redevelopment, must complement the neighborhood setting. Some uses are not appropriate. Inappropriate uses would include excessively large buidings. City of Charleston's Master Plan

There were times in my education as an architect at Clemson where we weren't taught enough about the context of where a building would go. We ignored buildings of historical importance and made each building a monument to something. We produced a sort of chaos in our cities where each building was fighting with one another. Clemson President James Baker, reported by Post & Courier 1996

So you are a young professional starting a career. You save hard and buy a condominium in the City. You probably didn't think too much about it but you presumed that City zoning rules would protect your investment. You certainly did not think that in a year or so, there would be a 60 foot wall right slam against your condominium. Too bad about the view out that back window. Too bad about the potential fire hazard and access to the back of your condominium. Too bad about the market value. Too bad for the owners of the four condominiums that adjoin one side of the site where Clemson proposes to build it new School of Architecture. According to the City, and the architects for Clemson, the owners just have to deal with it.

So much for so few
The residents of Ansonborough have already expressed their displeasure with the plans of the City and Clemson for the site on George Street. They, other neighborhood associations, the Preservation Society and Save the City feel the proposed school is inappropriate for an historic district such as Ansonborough. Moreoverl, the proposed building is too large and of a modern style. There is also a fear that the university is not revealing all. Why such a large investment of over $6 million in a 22,000 square foot building for only 25 or so students? Residents fear that there will ultimately be many more students and an exacerbation of traffic problems in the borough.

Zoning changed to help school but to detriment of condominium owners
But apart from general concern, some very specific hardships are emerging such as that for the condominium owners. How can such an injustice occur? It goes back to City zoning practices. Originally the two lots on which the proposed school will be built were zoned "residential" and "general business" respectively. The City rezoned the lots to "limited business" a few years ago, presumably to make it easier for Clemson to build its school. By being zoned "limited business", Clemson escaped the perhaps lethal process of applying for the "school overlay" with its more arduous building and buffer requirements. Meanwhile on the other side of the fence, condominium units were being developed on a site that was also zoned "commercial". Yes, residential developments are allowed in commercial. But according to the City, because the site was zoned "commercial", the residential development is not entitled to protection that would be afforded to it if it had been undertaken under a "residential" zoning.

But zoning regulations are there to protect the citizens! Tell that to the condominium owners. They thought they were buying into a residential development. After all it was approved by the City and was conspicuously residential, and single family at that. Indeed the units were called "townhouses" in the master deed of the development signed and dated December 20, 1999. Why are they not entitled to the same protection as for any other residential development? They are asking that the City treat their condominiums as part of a residential development. And in doing so, they insist that a 25 ft buffer - essentially green space - be established between the proposed school and the town houses. This would allow the condominium owners access to the back of their property, ensure light for their condominiums, and reduce the fire hazard. A buffer of 25 ft is required between any business and residential development according to City zoning regulations, Why not here?

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Another issue with another neighbor
And speaking of injustices, we also note that there is confusion shaping on another boundary of the site. The property to the east of the proposed school is zoned "residential'. According to our reading of the zoning regulations, a buffer zone must be created and be 25 ft in width. It cannot be used as a vehicular entrance. Yet the plans submitted to Ansonborough residents by Clemson's architect showed the buffer as only 15ft. It was to also be used as a driveway. We won't get too stirred up at this stage as there may be a genuine misunderstanding between the City and the architects. But the residents of 15 George Street are entitled to the protection afforded other residential property owners. And this means a 25ft buffer.

The reality check
And now for a reality check; Mayor Riley insists that the school be on the George Street site, regardless of opposition. It is his vision that the school will be opposite the Spoleto Festival building, and people will "learn to love it". But is it worth the cost, not only in money terms, but the alienation of the Ansonborough community and many other citizens who are concerned about the degradation of the historic fabric of Charleston? What really will be lost if the school were located on Ansonborough Field? And as for Clemson, what investment is threatened? It has outlaid little so far. It was effectively given the land by the City. It may have incurred some expense in architectural fees but this spending must be minimal. And why is the Mayor so intent on giving the University such a free run to set up this school in such a contentious site?

An extraordinarily high capital investment per student,
This School, which is going to cater to about 25 students, will cost the best part of $6 million. Throw in the cost of the land which was sold to Clemson for $1 but which we estimate has a value of about $1 million, and the opportunity cost comes to about $7 million. This places a capital cost of $280,000 per student. This looks pretty high to us, and we suspect a multiple of the unit cost of constructing teaching facilities at other learning institutions. We are also interested to hear that alumni of Clemson University could not be convinced to pony up funds for the school's construction. We do not know what held them back, but of course we can conjecture. It was too expensive? Its purpose what not sufficiently important? But as we now know, the Spaulding - Paolozzi Foundation, of which Mayor Riley and some Clemson faculty are directors and whose purpose is to support ecological and female issues, made a contribution of $1 million to the School. In turn, the School hopes to receive government grants or issue bonds on the back of this. But even so, Clemson will need to gather more funds to finance its completion.

Is Clemson or the Mayor listening?
In the last 6 months or so, Clemson has called two public meetings and met with the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association twice. The first public meeting was to view the results of the design competition to choose an architect. Despite the praise by the Mayor and Clemson officials, the public was unimpressed. The message was loud and clear. No large or modern building on the site. This message has not changed over the months, nor has Clemson's intent. The last meeting with HANA occurred last week and the architect admitted rushing to meet a deadline for a special presentation to the Board of Architectural Review. Residents again expressed their views. But they wonder whether anybody was listening. The meeting's purpose seemed merely to enable Clemson to insert that cosmetic line of "having met with the neighborhood". The architects did not acknowledge any likely changes to the design. Clemson's cavalier attitude to buffers also says much for its commitment to an aesthetically pleasing building. Why sacrifice size for a more pleasing landscape?

The conclusion is clear. Clemson and the City have spoken in the past of being good neighbors. If they really wanted to be good neighbors, they would not build the school at the proposed location. There is no real reason why it has to be on George Street in the historic section of the City. And no good reason why it can't be on Ansonborough Field. But it seems the Mayor and Clemson don't give a damn!

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