The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance
City Council Meeting November 22
City's inaction on Harborview House demolition questionedMarc Knapp
We are hard pressed to find much of interest arising from the agenda of last night's Council meeting. So we won't try. But we will dwell on a comment made by Council member George. He lamented the destruction of one of the few old houses on James Island and questioned how such a thing could occur. I also spoke of the demolition and the questions that it raised about the "process".
Most folk learned of the demolition from a report in the Post and Courier about a week ago. Harborview House was built about 150 years ago. The property was sold in 1999 to a developer, Point Verona Partners, the principal of which was Lawrence Thompson, assistant to Mayor Riley. The property was subsequently subdivided and the parcel on which the old house remained, no longer abutted Harbor View Road. According to the Post and Courier, the house was sold to Noel Mermer who said the house was not salvageable. The sale has not yet been registered by the County on its public records.
According to the City, because the house no longer abutted Harborview Road, it no longer fell into the Commercial Corridor ordinance and was therefore not protected. Nor was it designated a City landmark.
Council member George questioned the sensitivity of the City's planning and zoning. This building was one of a few remaining historic structures remaining on James Island. Residents of James Island were shocked to see that almost overnight the structure had been destroyed and without any discussion with the community. The shock was also felt by Cynthia Jenkins, the President of the Preservation Society who called the Council member immediately she became aware of the demolition.
House fell outside ordinance
Ms. Yvonne Fortenberry, head of Planning rose last night to defend the City's action and virtually repeated the comment in the Post and Courier. The City had an ordinance that required scrutiny of demolition plans for old buildings along major thoroughfares. However as the house did not front Harborview Road, the demolition did not need scrutiny.
Why not on landmark register?
Mayor Riley weighed in and stated that if Council member George felt so strongly about the building, why had he not moved to include it in the City land mark register? Council member George did not respond to this retort but almost certainly would have moved to have the building included if he thought the building were threatened. As I pointed out in Citizens' Participation, the City goes to great lengths to preserve houses in Council member Lewis's District, where residents state that buildings are unsalvageable. But here we have a building whose historic importance matched just about anything on the East or West sides and it was simply torn down, and suspiciously fast.
Subdivision circumvented Ordinance
Council member George was clearly unhappy with City's semantic play. Prior to the subdivision, the property would have abutted Harborview Road, and would have been protected by City ordinances. By allowing the subdivision and by changing the access to Old Summer House Road, the City ordinance has been circumvented. Harborview House no longer abutted the road to which it gave the name, Harborview. It therefore had no protection. And the City was not about to afford it any.
Was it indifference or something else? We would make a contrast with the City's efforts to encourage Clemson to build its controversial architecture center on George Street. The City's zoning and planning have gone to lengths that in my opinion, may be legally challenged. Yet here, the City had not lifted a finger. Why? It was clearly aware of the house's historical importance.
Ms. Fortenberry suggested that the City should again look at the ordinance and maybe other properties like Harborview House be included in the landmark list. Maybe! But it is too late for Harborview House, the 2 story structure that was once a landmark on the shore, served as a hospital during the Civil war and whose grounds were once a delight to James Islanders.
Another entry to list
So those of us that are questioning the "process" whereby the City approves building and construction have another name to add to the list. Recent entries include the Clemson School of Architecture, clustered affordable housing on Daniel Island, clustered affordable housing on West Ashley, and now, Harborview House. Once again the City has ignored public opinion, or failed to anticipate it, and for reasons that are open to question.