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Public meeting on City’s Preservation Plan

Will it be different this time round?

Warwick Jones

Will it make any difference, a neighborhood association president asked? She had just listened to a collation of comments and recommendations from the participants in a Public Hearing on the City’s Preservation Plan. Neighborhood Presidents have been saying these things for years and nothing has happened, she said. They have been ignored.

We are more optimistic. It may be true that City has paid little attention in the past to many of the grievances expressed last night. But this time round, there are more people listening and watching. And can the City ignore the consulting group putting together a new preservation plan, to be based largely on citizen comments? And can it ignore the Historic Charleston Foundation that is sharing half the cost of the hire of the consultant. Even the Mayor has stated that the City Ordinances need updating, and as well as hiring the consultant, has also hired a new director for the City’s planning and preservation efforts.

Hearing well attended
Last night’s Public hearing held in the Library Building on Calhoun Street drew some 130 attendees though possibly as many as 50 were staff of the City or consultant, or College of Charleston students. The hearing was the last planned by Page and Turnbull, the consultant retained to make the study. Two other public hearings have been conducted and we understand that the consultant held discussions with some neighborhood groups also. Last night’s meeting was the best attended.

Attendees asked to list their issues
Participants were given sheets containing comments made by participants at other meetings. They were then asked to look at these and write their own comments as to the important issues relating to preservation. The comments, written on yellow “posties” were then pasted by the participants on boards that attempted to categorize the issues – Uses, Design Review, Quality of Life, Financial Incentives, Rehabilitation Standards, Public Education and Other Issues. Participants were then assigned to specific tables and each table assigned a specific board and category. Those at each table had to read the comments on their “board”, collate them, choose what they thought were the top three of importance, and then recommend a solution.

As it turned out, it was hard to categorize many issues as they overlapped the defined headings. And there were few in relation to Public Education and Financial Incentives. But notwithstanding some confusion, and with help from the staff of the City and consultant, the comments were sorted into some order for consideration by the tables. And we thought the results were commendable.

A summary
We won’t attempt to give any order of importance to the comments. They are simply summarized and duplication eliminated. In many cases, citizens aired grievances beyond the scope of the public meeting. The new director of the City’s department of Planning Preservation and Economic Development was in the audience last night and could hardly have missed the clamor for change in planning and other related ordinances.

The comments:

Quality of Life
Too much traffic
Give large businesses some tax break to enable them to bus in employees or to encourage car pools.
Parking “dormitories” should be established in the Neck or the perimeter of the City.
These dormitories should be linked to the City by some form of public transportation.
Make Parking garages free in the evening to encourage visitors.
Update studies on traffic flow

Too many horse carriages on the streets.
All horse carriages should be regulated even when used for general transport.
Presently, carriages are regulated only when conducting tours. Regulations should be strictly enforced. Pedestrian crossings are needed on some busy streets. A pedestrian traffic survey should be undertaken.
Encourage new tourist sites outside the down town area

The impact of the College of Charleston on neighborhoods is recognized and student renters have driven out residents causing change in the character of the neighborhood.
The College should build more student dormitories to take off the pressure on the surrounding neighborhoods.
It should ban car ownership by students who are in their first and second years of college. The scope of the Livability Court should be expanded.

Design Review
The present process is confusing for both the applicant and the public. There is also the continuing issue of “new” versus “old” and some uncertainly as to where the responsibility of the BAR and BZA begins and ends.

The Boards should visit sites before meetings and members should be paid a stipend to compensate for
the extra time taken. When presentations are made before the Boards, some effort should be made to allow
the public to see the images and diagrams.

Staff should be given more latitude to approve minor proposals and amendments to take pressure off the Boards.

New Construction
Need to fix standards for height and ensure that few variances are granted.
Style and appearance should conform to that which exists in the area. Height scale and mass standards should be strictly applied without variances.

FEMA regulations are a problem requiring that habitable space be elevated by a specified amount in flood prone areas. A FEMA variance should be considered.

Some of the City’s zoning may be outdated such as that relating to 150 Wentworth Street. In zoning, one size does not fit all.
Ordinances should be specific to a neighborhood, and neighborhoods should be allowed to help design ordinances. Either because of apathy or poor advertising, not many people show up for BAR and BZA meetings.

Parking requirements should also be revisited.
The present broad requirement of 1.5 cars per residential unit should be increased to 2 cars per unit. Also the City’s enforcement of parking regulations is very spotty.

Rehabilitation standards
Attention is paid to the exterior of a building but not to the interior. The trend to convert historic building to condominiums has caused the destruction of interiors that have historic significance.
The City and State should start an awareness campaign and issue a booklet on the preservation of old buildings, how to do it, and economically.

The standards of the BAR have slipped.
They need to be reinforced. The hiring of colleges students to help enforce standards should be considered.

The conversion of houses to condominiums increases the density of population and cars.
Each house conversion should be assessed independently to determine the scope and size of the redevelopment.

Uses
The College is impinging on neighborhoods.
Build more apartment style buildings for students and take pressure off the neighborhoods. Discourage the institutional use of “eminent domain” e.g. Don’t allow a neighborhood friendly business as Yo Burrito to be taken out and replaced by a new and sterile institutional building. Get better law enforcement and with a “cop on the beat”
Seek relaxation of FEMA regulation to allow more use of ground Floors

Other Issues
Trash pick up should be improved with service increased to twice a week in residential areas as it once was. More public trash cans should be placed in heavily trafficked areas such as King Street.
Electric and other wiring should be placed underground though it is recognized that this can be an issue as residents pay a portion of the cost and the cost could be a heavy burden on some.
Analyze land use. New hotels are impacting traffic and neighborhoods. Where should they go? Tighten zoning ordinances, preserve character of each neighborhood, and provide more green space
Not enough attention was paid by the City to drainage in new developments.
The run off from these developments is contributing to the large drainage problem of the City. Developers need to pay up to ensure better drainage and a tax levied accordingly.
Small businesses are being driven out by large. This should be corrected but it may be hard to devise a method to reverse this.

In conclusion
Two things in conclusion. Some of us were initially disconcerted about the large number of C of C students present and participating. How meaningful would a hearing on preservation be when they represented about 30% off all those present? After all, the public hearing was for the benefit of residents rather than those “passing through” the City. Well their presence did cause some crowding and probably some citizens were inconvenienced. But overall, the students made a positive contribution. They were agreeable, had good ideas and helped loosen up the other attendees. It also seemed that they were more critical of the College than the citizens. So sorry for those initial thoughts

Which brings me to the second point. - Ansonborough Field. As I expressed optimism about the outcome of this and previous public meetings relating to preservation, I was reminded of the process relating to Ansonborough Field. There were 3 charettes where, in my opinion, the majority of citizens expressed opposition to development of the Field. This opposition was supported by a petition with 2000 signatures. All was dismissed by the Mayor. He still claims that the majority of people in attendance were in favor. We attended the 3 charettes and have a different opinion. But as my pessimistic friend noted, despite the public opposition, the City still went ahead with development.

Your Comments:

I am a certified city planner who works with a local government and lives downtown. I read your site often and I appreciate the work you put into it. One line in this entry prompts me to make my first ever comment. You list apathy or poor advertising as reasons the BZA and BAR meetings have poor attendance. I would respectfully submit that, more than anything, it's the time of the meetings. As a downtown resident and an urban planner, I would love to be involved in local issues before these boards. Unfortunately I am a working professional and simply can not make it downtown at 5:00 for council, board, and commission meetings several times a month.

Posted by: at February 7, 2007 01:52 PM

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