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Preservation Society sounds the alarm

Is Charleston facing an erosion of preservation standards?

The Preservation Society joins the Historic Charleston Foundation in questioning the City's commitment to preservation. In its current edition of Preservation Progress, it asks, " Are we facing an erosion of our preservation standards"? The lead article notes some of the projects that have been approved by the City and some that are in the process of approval. Clearly the Society is concerned about these projects and the impact they will have on the historical integrity of the City. It now joins the Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF), which also has expressed concerns, and plans to hold a public forum early this year to discuss the issue.

It is our opinion that the concerns of both the Preservation Society and the HCF have been building over the last year but came to head when Clemson, with the City's support, sought Board of Architectural Review (BAR) approval for its design for the School of Architecture on George Street. What happened thereafter has been well documented. Suffice to say that the Board approved the design to the horror of just about everybody in Charleston with the exception of City staff and Clemson faculty and alumni. (We'll confess to hyperbole but only a tad! If you have followed the correspondence in the Post and Courier, you could hardly disagree) Despite the public outpouring of criticism, the City and Clemson continue resolute in their ambition, a resolution that strikes fear in all of us as to whether the City really cares about preservation or the views of its citizens.

The article from Preservation Progress is reproduced below.

Height Scale and Mass in the Holy City Are we facing an erosion of our preservation standards?

With every height variance granted for new construction, every zoning change, every new building designed to accommodate the ever growing number of people who visit here or move to Charleston permanently, the erosion (to Charleston's Architectural Heritage) occurs.

Height, scale and mass may not be concepts most Charlestonians deal with on a daily basis. But these are some of the basic tools by which we as preservationists defend the architectural legacy handed to us by our Founders.

The Society's Executive Director, Cynthia Jenkins said, "(At the time of the inception of the Society) the battles were to save historic buildings from neglect and demolition. Although these issues are still a concern, other Preservation issues - even more difficult - face us today. Some of the definitions are abstract to many of us. For example, one issue is keeping the scale of an enormously successful historic district from being overwhelmed by inappropriate construction. There's terrific pressure to build taller, out-of- scale buildings, accommodate more and heavier traffic, find housing for a growing college and welcome evermore visitors. Today, Charleston is victimized by its own architectural, cultural and visual success. As a result, it is rapidly losing its special sense of place".

The Society is concerned that the former Charleston County Library site (404 King St,) and the west side of King St, from Vanderhorst St. to Calhoun St. were exempted from the ordinance reducing the "3x" area to a height limit of 55 ft. As it is now written, buildings in the "3x" area are allowed to be 3 times as tall as the distance from the centerline of the street to the edge of the building (90 ft and maybe taller). Leaving this zoning intact would allow the now-empty former Charleston County Library to be replaced with a 180 room hotel, estimated to be 8 stories in height.

City planners and developers routinely use the anomalies of the Francis Marion Hotel and the spire of St. Mathews Lutheran Church as justification for supporting tall buildings, ignoring factors such as building mass and the 1922 hotel's predating the height ordinance in the discussion. In addition, the Society cannot justify the height limit for the area south of Spring St, and north of Woolfe St. to remain at 100 ft. It should be reduced to 80 ft. for the same reasons of height consistency.

Another uphill push concerns new construction. The Society opposes a re-zoning from General Business to Urban Commercial that would allow replacing the building housing Millennium Music and other shops with a multi - story condominium with 52 residential units and an office complex of unspecified size reaching a height of possibly 8 stories. This area includes 366, 368, 370 1/2, 372 King St. and 24, 26 and 28 Burns Lane. The proposal would allow the residential density to increase from 23 units per acre to 43 - without any specific information on the height, scale and mass of the project. And no traffic study has been made to discern the impact of this change on the already stressed traffic pattern of King St, Calhoun St. and Burns Lane. In fact the Society requested at both the City Planning Commission and City Council this proposal for re-zoning be deferred until a comprehensive traffic impact study can be conducted and made available for public review.

"No tiny bit of this beauty in any remote section of our City is too insignificant or too unimportant in its integral part of the whole setting to be worth saving", wrote Society Founder Miss Sue Frost in a News and Courier letter to the Editor dated March 9 1928.

Height scale and mass provide the basic framework to evaluate the appropriateness of proposed new construction within the boundaries of the historic district. This framework along with the criteria for evaluating buildings, districts, sites and objects on the National Register for Historic Places, the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation, plus plain common sense provide the everyday tools used in preservation advocacy today. While the Preservation Society of Charleston tilts at the economic windmills of change in the 21st Century, perhaps now is a good time to review the standards we set down for ourselves only a few decades ago.

Sixteen Major Projects that Threaten the Downtown Historic District
The following projects that have either been completed, approved or proposed, involve a concentrated area from the South Carolina Aquarium to Coming St. (Approximately 7 blocks) and does not include the hospital district at the west end of Calhoun St.
1. Ansonborough Field - Possibility of two 50-room hotels.
2. 300 Concord St. - 30 new condominiums adjacent to Laurens Place.
3. 33 Calhoun St. - Another condominium development of 32 units.
11& 13 George St. - Clemson Architectural Center encompassing 22,000 sq ft.
4. College of Charleston Basketball Arena - at Meeting St between George St. and Burns Lane.
5. Holiday Inn Historic District - at the SE corner of Calhoun and King Sts. proposed to add 37 rooms and undetermined convention and meeting space.
6. Millennium Music - at the SE Corner of Calhoun and King Sts. possible eight story building that would include 2 floors of retail parking and 53 residential units.
7. 401 King St - Old Charleston Library Site on Marion Square a "full service" hotel.
8. 54 Phillip St - addition to the Simons Art Center, at the SE corner of Calhoun and St. Philips Sts.
9. New Science Building for the College of Charleston - at NW corner of Coming and Calhoun Sts.
10. 24 St Phillips St - New parking garage, cafeteria, dormitory, apartment and retail space, with 400 dormitory beds and 18,000 sq ft of retail space and parking
11. 340 Meeting St - Rivers Federal Building Site
12. 80 St Phillip St - College of Charleston dormitory, recently competed.
13. 81 St Phillip St - Parking garage, recently completed.

Your Comments:

I am glad to see some attention being paid to this issue. My family are 'from off', and I hesitate to enter the fray as we have only lived here for 17 years; but, during that time, we have seen an erosion in Charlestonians' commitment to historic preservation.

I have worked in the historic (and historically blighted) 'northern neck', and with all of the former industrial land lying fallow there I have a hard time justifying high-rise or high-density development in the historic city 'within the walls'.

I still work in industry, so I deeply feel the pull of of modern development with its promise of jobs and economic advantage. But I also feel that a line must be drawn -- has been drawn -- that there must remain a portion of Charleston that is not 'for sale', when that sale means unrestricted redevelopment.

I implore Mayor Riley and the BCD COG to work together to channel development to appropriate locations away from historic Charleston - including historic African -American communities like Marysville (if the community supports preservation) - to blighted locations in Charleston, as well as other locations in North Charleston and unincorporated areas that cry out for redevelopment. At the same time I encourage these governemnts to work together on transportation solutions that allow MORE access to historic Charleston with LESS impact on that historic character.

Posted by: John Sulkowski at January 9, 2006 01:41 AM