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Growing opposition to conversion of church to theater

Serenity of neighborhood would be destroyed
Warwick Jones

We do not know where the truth lies. When first brought to its attention, the neighborhood was told that the Mayor supported the conversion of the Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church in Wraggborough to a theater. Now we are hearing words to the contrary - that the Mayor opposes the conversion. And if indeed the Mayor is no longer supportive, it is interesting to speculate as to what changed his mind. Was it the mounting opposition to the conversion? Was it fear of another public rebuke similar to that suffered in the reaction to the Clemson Architecture Center.

Battle not yet won
However, the battle is not yet won and we won't consider it so until the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) hears and denies the request for a change of use on February 21. It seems that there will be many voices gathered to oppose the application, not only from the Wraggborough neighborhood but also from elsewhere in Charleston. And indeed, the residents of the borough must feel pleased as to the public response. The Post and Courier today published a page of letters largely opposed to the re-development

Meetings of neighborhood residents to consider the issue some weeks ago were not upbeat. There was a sense that the task before those opposed to the conversion was impossible. The Mayor supported the proposal, the developer was the Patrick Family with a high profile in the community and the Charleston Stage was a respected theater group. These things, coupled with the fact that the architect was Past President of the Preservation Society prompted the Neighborhood Association to almost consider the battle lost and to seek only mitigation.

But mood now more optimistic
But news of the Neighborhood's plight spread and we would like to claim a small part of the credit for broadcasting it. The message was similar to those delivered by other neighborhood associations in recent months. The City administration has negotiated a deal with out notifying the neighborhood. Not only did the Neighborhood resent the covert way the deal was put together, but also it was alarmed that the City could plan something that was destructive to the community. The Historical Ansonborough Neighborhood Association (HANA) certainly empathized with its neighbor. It is battling the City and Clemson over the proposed Architecture School and has criticized the way the deal was done and what is proposed. The theater conversion in Wraggsborough was discussed at HANA's monthly meeting and it was clear that residents generally supported those opposing the conversion.

Other neighborhoods should support their churches
As an aside, one might add that the proposed conversion of the church caused HANA to look more closely at its relationship with the churches in its community. It has spurred talk of joining with them in community events, to help raise funds for running and maintenance costs. And indeed other communities in the Historic District could do well to look at their relationship with the churches. Without much fear of contradiction, all neighborhoods would prefer to see a healthy attendance at their churches rather than suffer a change of use for the church buildings.

Issue with parking
But back to the Fouth Baptist Church. We have an issue with parking, as does the neighborhood. We thought that under the existing regulations, the proposed theater would need to provide about 70 parking spaces within 400 feet or seek an exception. We spoke to Mr. Lee Batchelder, the City Zoning Department head. He told us that the church was applying for a change of use and because the previous use was non-conforming, the specific provision under the regulations pertaining to a theater - 1 parking space for every 6 seats in the theater - did not apply. (We don't quite understand why but we accept his judgment) However, he said, parking was still an issue It was up to the developer to convince the BZA that parking was not a problem for the Neighborhood and of course for the residents, to convince the BZA of the opposite. Mr. Batchelder also said that the 1 parking space per 6 seats was a minimum with the implication one presumes, that it could be argued that more spaces would be necessary.

No relief for at least years
In our view, the developer and theater company is deluding itself if it thinks there will not be a parking problem. Presently there is insufficient spaces. The nearby Presbyterian Church may provide some spaces but most theater patrons will have to park at the distant Guillard Parking Garage, or worse, on the streets. The developer argues that the City plans to develop the site on Meeting Street where the Federal Building now stands. It said that a parking garage will be included in this development and that the theater can use some of this parking space. We are not sure that the BZA will grant the change of use on a promise of parking, and one that is not likely to be realized for 3 years or more. Although we concede a garage on this site would significantly reduce the seriousness of the parking issue, it does nothing for the next 3 years.

Serenity of neighborhood will be destroyed
We strolled through Wraggborough the other night with some of the residents. The atmosphere was serene, and the vehicular traffic on Meeting Street only an unobtrusive background. It was a neighborhood at peace. We stood by the church and attempted to visualize 400 people gathering for and dispersing from a theater performance. There was no way the serenity could be maintained with this theater in its heart of the district and a stream of people most nights of the week.

Other uses should be investigated
Nobody wants to see the Church converted but the majority of its neighbors do not want the community sacrificed just for preservation in its present state. The developer claims that what it proposes is the best that the neighborhood can hope for. If the theater use is not approved, the church could be converted to condominiums. Well, guess what? Many residents preferred the conversion to condominiums than to a theater. At the least, this would be less detrimental to the neighborhood and real estate values. And besides, maybe there is hope of another use. Look at the Karpeles Manuscript Library on Spring Street. This was an old church bought and renovated by Mr. Karpeles to houses old manuscripts. This is not to suggest that Mr. Karpeles buy the church and create another museum. But is does suggest there are uses out there that none of us have thought of. The word needs to be broadcast that a fine old church is available for purchase and will have the community approval if put to the right use. Who knows, maybe the City could be persuaded to contribute funds for the renovation.

Look to legal action if necessary
And finally, we would counsel the neighborhood to consider court action if the BZA allows the change in use. In this writer's opinion, there will definitely be an adverse affect on the community. It is also his view that there will be grounds for appeal and to take the matter to court. A court resolution may take some years but that should not cause the neighborhood association any grief. But as it is anxious to move in as soon as possible, the theater company will be grieved and the developer could lose its enthusiasm in proceeding with the acquisition.