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A growing frustration with City policy

The Mayor - an undeserving recipient of accolades

Warwick Jones

It is the neighborhoods with their abundant and historic well-preserved buildings that give Charleston its charm. Mayor Riley describes the City of Charleston as "world class". We too think it is. But publicly we have expressed the view that its stature is despite the Mayor's administration and not because of. We think that City policy is causing Charleston to lose its luster. Ordinances ostensibly designed to protect the historic areas are not being enforced and some have been recently amended to serve development.

Growing number of disenchanted citizens
We sense a growing frustration with the City and its seeming disregard of the historic areas. Now into his 8th term and never seriously threatened by an opponent, the Mayor understandably exudes confidence, some say arrogance, in managing the City. We are not bold enough to forecast his political demise at the next election. But should a reasonable challenger appear, he or she will garner a lot of support from disenchanted folk. The disenchanted will include many of those who feel Charleston's historic areas are threatened. But it will also include those on Daniel Island, James Island, Wraggborough, and Ansonborough who resent the insensitivity of the Mayor to local issues. And this insensitivity has probably not been lost on the wider community.

City planning and preservation entities have failed their purpose
The City has three entities that have the power to restrain development and to maintain the livable nature of the City, and the historic ambience of downtown. They are the Planning Commission, the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) and the Board of Architectural Review (BAR). In this writer's opinion, they have too often failed to achieve their purpose. They may claim that they only can act within the law: if ordinances are lax, it is not their responsibility. Again we concede that there is some truth in this claim. But the City would be in better shape if these bodies simply enforced ordinances, or looked more honestly at their defined purpose.

Repetitious rhetoric
Mayor Riley has made much of Charleston, its architecture and historic ambience to enhance his political stature. As Mayor, he has reason to boast of the City's attributes. A search of the internet will produce a slew of reports on the Mayor and what he has done for Charleston. We can't speak for the whole of his 31 year tenure. But of recent years, the reports are largely repetitious rhetoric, fostered by a superlative public relations team, in our view.

Mayor Riley has been nominated for and received a number of awards. Some have been for city planning, others for preservation and affordable housing. But it seems that some of the praise that the Mayor has received has bred on itself. For example, we came across two letters submitted by prominent members of the architecture community in support of a nomination that are essentially identical, word for word. There is also a commonality in words of praise in the introduction of the Mayor to meetings of professional groups. We could give more examples but it would be wrong to make too much of this repetitive praise. Shouldn't the facts speak for themselves? And in our opinion, they do.

Planning is out of balance
Let's take city planning. It's out of balance. Just ask a resident of either the Peninsula or suburbia. Traffic jams the Peninsula at all times of the day and early evening. It is a combination of rising numbers of tourists, students, residents and workers. In suburbia, it is simply rapid development overwhelming infrastructure.

Only "below Broad" escapes impact of major development
The area "below Broad" on the Peninsula has escaped major development. Most of the remaining areas haven't, and development is destroying their historic ambience. Just about all development on the Peninsula over recent years required variances and exceptions by the BZA. The Vendue Range development next to Waterfront Park for example required a height variance. The many commercial developments along King and Meeting Streets required parking and other exceptions. Ansonborough Field, a project of the City required a convenient change in the Ordinance relating to building heights.

Some support specific developments out of fear
It says something about City policy when a preservation group supports a major development on King and Meeting Street out of fear. It did not like what was proposed. But if the proposed development were rejected, it feared that the City would allow another project even more offensive. In other words, the ordinances were not sufficiently confining and the BZA too lenient in granting exceptions and variances.

Voids filled with ugliness
The historic part of Charleston was laid out in the 18th and 19th centuries. Its roads, streets alleyways, its skyline were largely defined over this period with buildings whose proportions were in harmony with their surrounds. An earthquake, fires and the Civil War did much to disturb this ambience and created some voids that subsequently were filled by ugliness. Some of these filled voids are manifest by commercial buildings and parking lots. I refer particularly to the area between Market and Broad Streets. There has been no attempt to replace what was lost with structures that are compatible with the historic surrounds.

Some ordinances are lax or loosely enforced
As we noted, it is not always the BZA that is at fault, it is simply the City ordinances. Take the condominium development at George Street that virtually fills a lot that stretches from George to Society Streets.

George St 1.jpgGeorge St 2.jpg
George St 3.jpg
This development was allowed under the existing ordinance, a fact that is surprising many folk who are stunned at its mass. The structure does nothing for Society or George Streets, and detracts from the adjoining historic houses. Although allowed by the City ordinance, the BAR had power to reduce the scale and mass of the proposed buildings and make them compatible with those surrounding.

BAR has let down citizens badly
The BAR also has badly let down the City with its approval of construction that from an architectural viewpoint is often less than mediocre. It argues that it has nothing to do with zoning and has to deal with the buildings that are proposed. However City Ordinance 54-249 states the BAR has the authority to refuse a permit or Certificate of Appropriateness for erection, reconstruction, demolition.. etc.... within the old and historic districts .... detrimantal to the interests of the old and historic districts and against the public interest of the City.

The BAR could do much more that it has done. It is supposed to ensure appropriate standards of "height, scale and mass". And if this is the case, how does it explain its failure in relation to the George Street condominium development. Speaking of the project, Mr Craig Bennet, a member of the BAR said that Overall the architects have done a really good job of hiding a lot of mass. (P&C August 26, 2004) Help!

The BAR's most conspicuous failure
And what about the BAR's most conspicuous failure - its approval of the Clemson Architecture Center, also on George Street. Its decision, approved by all members except one, was condemned mightily by just about everybody except the alumni, the Mayor and some City staff. Thank goodness for public reaction for despite the approval of the BAR, the university now plans on submitting an entirely new design, we believe.

Planning Commission approves too many subdivisions
We should not forget about the Planning Commission. It has approved the subdivisions west of the Ashley and in particular, those close to the border with Dorchester County. Development has choked roads in the area with traffic. There are reports of residents waiting 30 minutes or so just to be able to leave their driveways. And there are still thousands of dwellings approved that remain to be built. Viewers, if they read the daily newspaper, know that these traffic jams are not fiction of our creation. Why has there been no attempt at regional planning?

And what of preservation? The City may not be guilty of demolishing old buildings but its planning policy, or lack of it, certainly takes away from the historic ambience of the City, We'll let the Preservation Society speak to this issue with an extract from its magazine, Preservation Progress.

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".

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. See Charlestonwatch posting, January 8, 2006. "Preservation Society sounds the alarm".

City's efforts on " affordable housing" hyped
And what about the City's efforts on "affordable housing"? Almost 2 years ago, we wrote a note entitled Hailed, hyped and hobbled (November 25, 2004). After spending much time talking to City officials and "affordable housing" providers, we concluded that in recent years the City had done little. Most of the funds it distributed for "affordable housing" was provided by HUD. The major providers of "affordable housing" were non-profits who had their own sources of financing.

Accelerated effort this year
We do note that this year, the City has embarked on a more ambitious level of spending though we would argue that its focus should remain on low income groups. Some of the developments in which it is involved will be targeting families that earn up to 150% of the average median income. These developments specifically are at Ansonborogh Field and Longborough.

What about Daniel Island?
We make particular note that the City had the right to take 20 acres in the Daniel Island Development for "affordable housing". It did not exercise its right over the 10 year option period which subsequently lapsed last year. Why the City did not exercise the option we do not know? Maybe it was opposition from the developer or the land was inappropriate for "affordable housing". But what ever, the option was valuable and worth something to the developer if not exercised. Why didn't the Mayor if he were so intent on providing "affordable housing", sell the option to the developer and use the proceeds for "affordable housing" elsewhere.

Rising hostility
We sense rising hostility toward the City entities that are concerned with development and planning. Their members are appointed by the Mayor and are approved by Council. However, Council's approval is a mere formality. In all Council meetings attended by a representative of Charlestonwatch, appointees have never been discussed. Council as usual, does the Mayor's bidding.

Some of the members of these entities have been serving for very long periods. We recognize that they are not paid for the time they serve and that sittings can sometimes be onerous. They make considerable sacrifice of personal time. But members must still serve the community and not be unduly influenced by the requests of the Mayor. There also should be shorter tenure. We understand that the Chairman of the Board of Zoning Appeals has served for nearly 30 years and some other members for 10 years or more. This is to long.

We need independent Boards
We also understand that some attendees at a recent Consortium Meeting (a meeting of Neighborhood Association Presidents) sought the dismissal and replacement of all BAR members because of the School of Architecture fiasco. This was considered too provocative or drastic, and allowed to die. But it was some measure of the mood of discontent. How was it, some attendees asked, that a Board could have a near unanimous and favorable decision on a project so universally condemned? Did it reflect the fact that the Mayor strenuously supported the project and spoke at the BAR meeting at length? Was the BAR intimidated or just collectively exercised poor judgment? Either way, it needs new direction!

Your Comments:

You raise many compelling issues. Permit me a brief comment on some that interest me.

"We sense a growing frustration with the City and its seeming disregard of the historic areas"

This seems to be a common complaint. I believe the underlying issue has to do with the fact that Charleston is experiencing the growth pains of the it prospering economy and increasing popularity over the last 20 years or so. A city, by definition encourages its own growth. How that growth takes shape is a sensitive issue in a city such as this where no previously significant growth has occured in the last 100 years. While respecting the scale of the historic context can ammeliorate the impact of infill development, a blanket restriction on design cuts off Charleston's architectural legacy and relegates it to the past.

"Traffic jams the Peninsula at all times of the day and early evening...In suburbia, it is simply rapid development overwhelming infrastructure."

More roads won't solve this problem, but perhaps less and narrower roads will. In other words, discourage automobile traffic. Promote modes of public transport. It is question of form. How do we want to grow. The cancerous spread of the suburbs threatens the rural and natural areas with each new development. We need to encourage greater densities within the existing urban footprint and constrain the spread of the the detached family home.

"...development is destroying their historic ambience. Just about all development on the Peninsula over recent years required variances and exceptions by the BZA."

If you want to contain the urban growth, expected to triple the size of the urban footprint by 2030, you have to allow for greater densities withing the existing context. The Neck is ripe for this type of development. Adding a 10 to 20 story building on broad street wouldn't be wise, yet a density permitting upwards of 30 stories in the Neck has the potential to significantly offset the suburbanization of valueable rural land.

"The historic part of Charleston was laid out in the 18th and 19th centuries...There has been no attempt to replace what was lost with structures that are compatible with the historic surrounds."

Charleston form and character is derived primarily from a bygone elite planter society. Just as no one would suggest that we return to that kind of society, why should the buildings we make today harken back to that time? The BZA and BAR should enforce an appropriateness of scale, not style. Replacing what was lost seems an impossible proposition.

"the BAR has the authority to refuse a permit or Certificate of Appropriateness for erection, reconstruction, demolition.. etc.... within the old and historic districts .... detrimantal to the interests of the old and historic districts and against the public interest of the City."

The wording of this ordinance is certainly not specific, allowing for personal interpertation of what is appropriate and what is not. In other words, it would have more teeth if its said, "all new buildings must be constructed to building standards, scales, mass, and styles of the 18th century." That says something. The city's ordinance doesn't.

"The BAR's most conspicuous failure"
I take issue with how this process was undertaken by the city and the university more than the design of the facility. It would be a shame not to have the CAC in the most architecturally valueable city in the state.

"Planning Commission approves too many subdivisions"
Go UP, not out!

"There also should be shorter tenure. We understand that the Chairman of the Board of Zoning Appeals has served for nearly 30 years and some other members for 10 years or more. This is to long."

Noted and fully agree. Experience is valueable, but so is fresh blood.

Posted by: Tommy Manuel at July 26, 2006 05:09 PM

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