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Planning Commission Meeting August 17

Approval of first step in major development on King and Calhoun Streets
Board member Waring's attitude alarms us
Warwick Jones, Editor

The agenda was long for last Wednesday's meeting, swollen by all those annexations on James Island. Fortunately the most important item was close to the top - the rezoning of the lots at the corner of Calhoun and King Streets where the Millennium music store is presently located. There were two applications before the board relating to adjoining lots but they will be combined ultimately into one for a large development comprising retail, commercial and residential space.

According to the attorney for the developer, the rezoning from General Business to Urban Commercial (UC) was simply to allow the developer more flexibility in planning the number of condominium units. The present zoning allows 26.3 units per acre while that of UC allows 43.6 units per acre. There would be no other effect and would not make any difference to the ultimate shape and size of the building allowed by City ordinances.

A big development
The application before the Commission was the first step in shaping plans. The developer therefore provided nothing in the way of diagrams to show the Commission the shape and nature of the building. And the attorney kept on reminding the Commission that its approval was only first step: there were many more hurdles over which the developers had to jump before a final plan was approved. But even in the absence of plans, it is clear that a major project is contemplated. The combined sites amount to 1.25 acres. The center part of the building will be 8 stories high, the periphery probably 3 to 4 stories. Taking into account that there will be setbacks for stories 5 through 8, we expect the structure will encompass 200,000 to 300,000 sq ft. It will also encompass 190 parking places.

Few in support or opposition
Surprisingly there were few attending the meeting to either support or oppose the plan. Excluding the developer, the supporters were only Save the City and the President of The Garden Area Neighborhood Association. They spoke of the need to anchor the corner with a significant building and thought what was proposed would enhance Marion Square. There were three who opposed the re-zoning -The Preservation Society, The Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF), and this author. The first two entities had similar concerns - about the scale and mass of the building and the potential traffic problems that could arise. They also noted the narrow width of King Street and by implication the potential for traffic congestion. The HCF also suggested that the Francis Marion Hotel, on the opposing corner, should not be used as a justification for building such a large structure: a more appropriate measure was the old Citadel Building that abutted the northern end of Marion Square.

The author endorsed these comments and added that the success and attraction of Charleston could be attributed to its many historic buildings and thereby its charm. One way or another, these had been largely preserved over the years. But the attractiveness of the City has drawn developers who hope to ride on the success of preservation efforts. Big developments such as that before the Commission do nothing to preserve the ambience and indeed, some historic buildings will be demolished to make way for this development. Any satisfaction that the Chairman of the Board publicly shared this concern was offset by the final vote of 6 to 1 to approve the development.

A concerning attitude of Commissioner Waring
Which brings me to the issue with Commissioner Waring. I made my comment to the Boards as a citizen. I made no reference to the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association and no claim to represent it. Commissioner Waring stated in the discussion after the public had completed its comments that it was significant that only one member from Ansonborough with its "powerful Neighborhood Association" was at the meeting. The implication was clear: If this were an important issue for the neighborhood, more people would be at the meeting.

If the Commissioner's attitude is shared by other board members, heaven help the community. Commissioners are supposed to judge matters on their merits. They can be swayed and influenced (I hope) by views and judgments of individuals. But ultimately it is up to them to vote on their conscience. To imply that a large turnout from Ansonborough in particular would have made a difference to him raises the question as to whether he should sit on the Commission.

Taking it a step further, this issue of the development has never been discussed by the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association. This may reflect a number of factors, - the development is not in Ansonborough, a number of other community issues have occupied HANA and its members in recent weeks and finally, it is August and a large number of people are away. But I can assure Commissioner Waring that a lot of folk in the neighborhood would oppose this development.

Why does the ordinance allow a 100ft height
And take another step back. Many in this community believe that it is a waste of time appearing before the Commission and other City bodies. They believe that major issues are decided in City Hall before they ever reach the Commission or other City Boards that purportedly make "decisions" on projects. No, I did not say that City Hall pulls the strings. I simply say it is the perception of many. And such cynicism may be engendered by the fact that too frequently City commissions and boards, even while paying lip service to groups such as the HCF and HANA, nevertheless give little or no weight to public comment.

An example of this could be seen last night in the intimidating comments made by the City Planning officer. In recommending that the Commission approve the development, he noted that in the envisioned building, as currently proposed, would have a height of 80 ft and warned that, if this deal fell through, the next developer might seek to go to the full height - an additional 20 ft -- allowed by law. My reading of this is that City Planning did not believe a height of 100 ft was good for this site and that 80 ft was better. But why then do we even have an ordinance that allows the building to go to a height of 100 feet anyhow? Earlier this year Council approved a slew of height changes in the Historic Districts that the Planning Commission had approved earlier. If 100 ft is not appropriate for this corner, why did we allow it? There was a lot of public opposition to some of the increased heights. But the opposition of citizens made no difference.

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