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Preservation Forum

We hope it really will herald change
Warwick Jones

Last night, the Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF) held a forum on preservation in Charleston. It was designed to herald the intention of the City to look again at its preservation ordinances and to introduce the consultants retained to advise it. And if the consultant does what it says it plans to do, and the City listens, those of us who despair about the preservation of historic Charleston will cheer.

The panelists included Mayor Riley, Winslow Hastie of HCF, Cynthia Jenkins, Head of the Preservation Society, and Eddie Bellow of City Staff. If the public were under the impression they could air their views, they were disappointed. The HCF had assembled a panel of 6 speakers each of whom spoke for about 5 minutes. About half an hour was left after the presentations, and only for questions addressed to the panelists.

Presentations were predictable and genertally not very memorable
We won't attempt to report on the presentations in any detail. Much that was said was not very memorable, and some cases, very predictable. And of course there was much that should have been said that wasn't. But what was clear is that the present situation in the City is untenable. Nobody came out as said it that way. It always was couched in polite terms such as "the present ordinance has been in place for 30 years and needs to be updated. What the City had preserved is wonderful but it was time for a change etc". There was only one reference to Clemson's attempt to place its Architecture Center on George Street and to the large hotel/ condominium development on Meeting Street. Opposition to both of these projects was strong and contributed to the soul searching that led the City to consider a new plan. No panelist mentioned the 15 or more major projects that were highlighted in recent publications of both the Preservation Society and the HCF, and the dramatic and adverse impact they would have on Charleston's Historic District.

Consultants to hold public meetings
Members of the consulting firm Page and Turnbull spoke briefly of themselves and the plans for the Charleston Study. Mr. Charles Chase, an architect formerly working for the City of Charleston and retained by Page and Turnbull, was one of the panelists. He and other spoke of public hearings in neighborhoods to garner opinions of residents. They also plan to look beyond the present Historic District and into areas such as West Ashley and the Neck area. Mr. Chase noted that the firm was based in San Francisco and suggested that the problems of that city were very similar in many respects to those of Charleston. He didn't elaborate but this was probably an inference that what works in San Francisco could work in Charleston. San Francisco has split up its historic district into discrete units, each with differing preservation standards. The City has given itself more flexibility in dealing with preservation but without compromising general standards. An example in Charleston might be giving the Eastside a different preservation standard than say below-Broad. Much of the Eastside is blighted and needs to be rebuilt rather than restored or renovated. But at present, it and below-Broad are subject to the same City ordinance.

If there were a time frame for completion given, we didn't hear it. But public hearings would be underway by the New Year, promising a timely report of recommendations.

Will it be worthwhile?
Will it all be worthwhile? We hope so. The preservation of the Historic District of Charleston is so important, and for all of the reasons spoken so many times. It is perhaps the best preserved historic district in the nation. It should be a legacy for Charlestonians and the nation. It is the basis for Charleston's major industry, tourism. To us and many others in Charleston, the seeming indifference of the City to preservation in recent years is hard to understand. The indifference leads us to ask whether the City will ignore recommendations of the consultant and that nothing much will change, at least not for the better.

City should find it hard to ignore consultant's recommendations
We suppose anything is possible. But it would be a bleak assumption that nothing much will change. Some recommendations such as splitting the Historic District into discrete units with separate standards should be welcomed by both the City and residents. But some, such as a recommendation to tighten up standards and not allow so many variances and exceptions by the Board of Zoning Appeals may not sit well with the City. Will the City accept such a recommendation? With the study approved and applauded by the Mayor, and with the backing and support of the HCF, it will be hard for the City to back away from a recommendation. We would expect the Preservation Society and other entities to weigh in heavily with their opinions. We concede the Mayor has rarely been daunted by criticism but we note that he blinked in the glare of Clemson's Architecture Center. We suspect that if the body of citizen opinion supported the recommendations of the consultant, he would hesitate to oppose them.

Not much promotion
There were about 170 attendees of the forum. We suspect there would have been more if it were better advertised. The lack of publicity was hard to understand given the importance of preservation. Robert Behre ran an article in the Post & Courier on the day of the forum. We had a note on our web site. The HCF sent out a flyer to its supporters but as far as we can tell that was it! There was nothing on the Preservation Society web site and no advertisements in the Post and Courier. Most surprising, there was no mention in the City Diary, or anywhere that we could see on the City Web site.

Charlestonwatch distributes booklet
Charlestonians have a reputation for politeness. Judging on last night’s meeting, the reputation was deserved. And fearing rightly that the transgressions of the City would be barely noted, we prepared a booklet "The City of Charleston. Does it really care about preservation?" We distributed copies to the panelists and the audience. The booklet contained descriptions and photos of some of the recent and ugly developments allowed by the City.

And of course it can be downloaded, press here.Its over 5MB so be patient. We thought the booklet might stop any panelist from waxing too mightily about the great achievements the City has made in preservation. It wasn't totally successful. We noted there were only two copies left on the chairs after the audience departed. So most attendees were very dutiful in not creating litter, or they felt it a worthwhile booklet to keep. We prefer the latter conclusion.

We ask for a moratorium
We also asked the Mayor that considering the importance of the likely changes flowing from the consultant's recommendaions, could a moratorium be placed on major developments, and in particulary, the major developments mentioned in recent articles by the Foundation and the Preservation Society? He didn't respond to a moratorium on general development but he said a moratorium was not possible on those projects referred to in the articles, for legal reasons. However, some were in the early and conceptual stages and the final outcome could be influenced.

Your Comments:

Your group is so mean-spirited! I read the booklet you provided at the forum cover to cover. It looked like a well-produced booklet, but what a disappointment. Your anger shines through more than anything. Anyone can do what you do...criticize!Yet, in your booklet you don't offer ONE example of a project done in a way you would like to see accomplished. This weakens any chance a reader has of taking you or your group seriously, or grasping what exactly your point is-- other than to show us how you've reduced architecture to a blood sport and how everyone else in town are idiots...except you and your Ansonborough Neighbors. What a joke. Basically, you come across as an organization lead by people who moved to town 7 -10 years ago and want everything to freeze in time. Charleston isn't Williamsburg, or Disneyland-- it's a living breathing city and this is 2006. Architecture from today will also have a place in history..not just the 18th century replicas your group seems to be promoting. Take a chill pill-- maybe people will take you seriously. And as for open discussion-- at least the City hosted one...your website makes it clear that dissenting opinions, or those critical of your group will not be posted. What a great policy for a site that is supposedly a "watchdog??" What a joke.

Posted by: Mike at November 13, 2006 01:49 PM