The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance

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Clemson School of Architecture

The public speaks loud and clear
What is the City doing?
Warwick Jones

The Board of Architectural Review (BAR) may have done Charleston a favor. Of course it didn't mean to. There was no doubt as to its collective view about the proposed Clemson Architectural School. It was in favor. But its indifference to the views of the public, expressed at the BAR meeting, in the press and elsewhere, and the revelations of the City's actions to secure approval for the proposed building, have stimulated public outrage to a level unprecedented in recent times. No it is not just the offending Clemson building, it is the whole "process". There are ordinances that have been defined to preserve the historic fabric of the City. Why are they not being enforced? Why are they being undermined? There are bodies whose purpose is to encourage preservation and challenge the forces that threaten the historic integrity of the City. Where are they? The Clemson issue may pass, but the broader issue most likely will remain and with it a challenge to the City to mend its ways.

Public outcry is heartening
But firstly Clemson. For us that have opposed the Clemson School because of its size, form and location, the public outcry has been heartening. Even the most stalwart of City administration supporters, the Post and Courtier, has come out unequivocally against it with a hard hitting editorial. Its position has be supported by many letters, not only from citizens but also from well know architects. Even Andress Duany, whom Mayor Riley praised at the BAR hearing but before he knew the architect's views, blasted the design. The Post and Courier has done its job well in echoing the public's feelings. The Mayor and the President of Clemson University can not have missed the clamor. It is now a question as to whether they will listen and react to the public's wishes. Unfortunately, there is nothing so far that indicates that they will.

Where the Clemson issue will lead is conjectural. But there are a large number of angry citizens and they will not be fobbed off. They have been considering their options for some time and the Mayor and President Barker had better hunker down for a long battle.

We will not dwell on the proposed Clemson structure. The Post and Courier has done a good job on bringing most of the issues to the attention of the public and we hope it will continue doing so. Viewers should visit the website of Save the City by pressing here to view plans of the proposed building and for more commenary. We want to focus on the "process".

More important issues over the City administration
It is our opinion that questions about certain aspects of the City administration have been building for some years. Charleston is a designated historical City. In terms of the number of preserved historic buildings, it is unique in the nation. The Mayor and his administration acknowledge this. But then why are their actions, or those of the boards and bodies that the Mayor and Council appoint, in a way inimical to preservation? Why are they approving construction of higher and higher buildings, destroying the City sky line? Why are they punishing the City with a death from a 1000 cuts by approving a multitude of re-zonings leading to higher densities and traffic problems? Why are they causing Charleston to fall from close to top on of the list of the most livable Cities in the nation? Why is the BAR approving modern and inappropriate designs for buildings in the historic districts when it is charged to do otherwise? And why are all the modern designs that they do approve so ugly, or at best, condemned with faint praise?

Less than full disclosure to citizens
Bold charges? Consider the history of proposed Clemson site. It was originally owned by the City and sold to Clemson for $2. Prior to the sale to Clemson, the City re-zoned the sites, an action that negated the obligations of a school overlay zone. The City maintained that it discussed its proposal with Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association (HANA). It didn't, though it did discuss the re-zoning with a board member who in turn made it clear that he expected the City to adhere to all of the zoning regulations. The City didn't. Nor was the HANA member aware of the implications relating to the re-zoning. The school overlay imposes conditions on a school when set up in a residential zoning. By changing to a commercial zoning, these obligations are removed - the foot print of the proposed building can now exceed 50% of the lot size and buffer requirements are less onerous. There are folk who believe that the re-zoning's sole intent was to thwart the imposition of the harsher standards of the school overlay zone and that the City was not honest in its disclosure to HANA.

Construction will impinge on rights of neighbors
Now consider the desire by Clemson and encouraged by the City, to take its building right up to the wall of condominium building at the back of the Clemson site. While the City owned the Clemson site, it approved a variance for the condominium owners to install a series of windows. Now Clemson, again with the approval of the City, is telling the owners that they must brick up their windows as well as suffer the wall of their proposed building and only some inches away. The wall of the condominium building is wood with an overlay of stucco. The owners ask how on earth will they repair let alone maintain the wall, particularly as it is not of the most durable material. But this legitimate question is paled by the bigger item. What happened to the rights of the condominium owners? Clemson and the City seem to think the owners have no rights in view of the re-zoning of the Clemson sites. With a commercial zoning, the proposed building can be right up to the property line and too bad if there is a building the other side. And the City tells us this is right?

Flexible City view on buffer zones
But consider also buffer zones. Original correspondence between the City and Clemson indicated that buffer zones were required between the proposed building and the residence to the East. The correspondence indicates a changing position of the City, with a reduction for that between the proposed school and the residence from 25 feet with no driveway to a buffer of 15 feet which can also serve as a driveway. Talk about bending the rules!

We ask the question if the City succeeds in going to these lengths to get what it wants, what is to prevent something like this happening again?

Action by Preservation entities
And what about the two entities that are charged with preserving the integrity of the City, the Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF) and the Preservation Society? We say with out any fear of contradiction that the citizens of Charleston owe them much. They have done a great job over the years in helping preserve the historic integrity of the City. Unfortunately their voices are often ignored but in the case of the HCF, sometimes it does not speak.

We noted about a year ago that HCF's voice on some matters of preservation had declined to a whisper, and sometimes not even that. (HCF - Watch dog or tail waggin' spaniel? September 8, 2004) Our view is that the board of the HCF is becoming politicized. We will not pursue this view but will say that it is one widely held and that there are many who are concerned by the HCF's lack of will. We have heard property owners declare that they no longer will offer their properties to the HCF for house tours - an action that could be painful and difficult for the HCF considering the importance of house tours for fund raising, and the declining number of available properties with the increase of absentee owners.

We look for a more resolute HCF
But we hear that there have been rumblings at the HCF and a more resolute Foundation will emerge. Its comments at the BAR hearing on the Clemson Building were critical but very restrained. We are anticipating something much more forceful within the next few days.

The City needs to be called to account
Where will all of this lead? We hope firstly to the relocation of the Clemson school to the Old Trolley Building, Ansonborough Field, or North Charleston. But as to the broader issue - the process - we don't know. We hope that Charlestonians will not fall back into repose if they are successful in combat over the Clemson issue. The City needs to be called into account, and before the next mayoral elections. If not, Mayor Riley's opponent who ever that might be, will have support from many citizens who are fed up with the Administration's cavalier attitude and disregard of fair play.

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