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We need a moratorium on new development in the Historic District

Harleston Village community tries to fight back

Warwick Jones

Residents of the historic district have been shouting, threatening, pleading and “lawyering” for some years now. Both the Preservation Society and the Historic Charleston Foundation have warned of the destruction of the historic districts by major development projects approved by the City. The Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association even appealed to the National Trust by asking that Charleston be placed on the list of the “Eleven Most Threatened Historic Sites” in the nation. But notwithstanding, development continues.

How long before the City amends its preservation ordinance?
The City’s only concession to the heat that the community is applying, is to agree to hire a consultant to advise on its Preservation Code, and to hire a new Director of Planning and Development. It is too early to assess where these moves will lead but we have expressed optimism that both will lead to a reassessment by the City of its ways. But realistically, will it be enough? Even if we optimistically assume that the recommendations of the Consultant are adopted, it may be another year or so before ordinances are revised. The development projects now approved and those likely to be approved over the next year or so may well have permanently impaired the Historic Districts.

We need a moratorium on new development
We suggested at the public forum held by the Historic Charleston Foundation late last year that the City impose a moratorium on new development until the Consultant makes its recommendation on changes to the Preservation Code, and the Code is changed. The Mayor responded that legally it was not possible to restrain those developments already approved by the City. Sadly he is right. But is there a legal impediment in imposing a moratorium on all other development?

Harleston Village in the front line
Arguably, Harleston Village may be closest to the front line in the battle against development. The “village” represents the area that is bounded by the hospitals along Calhoun Street to the north, the College of Charleston to the East, Broad Street to the south and the Ashley River to the west. Visitors to the village will be struck by the many fine buildings such as the Wentworth Mansion View image and the old City Library. View image

Like other neighborhoods on the Peninsula, the village is afflicted with parking problems and the growing incidence of trophy houses – those bought by outsiders and not used as full-time residences. They will also be struck by the encroachment of the hospitals and associated buildings to the South and the college and student rental housing to the East. These have made the problems of the community very acute. They also may have contributed to the lack of cohesion in the Community in its effort to fight against development. With so many renters, those residents truly concerned about the community are thinly spread.

The College and hospitals have made the village a favored place to locate rental housing. Many fine old houses have been converted to condominiums, to cater to student renters mainly. An observer will note that the occupants of rented houses do little to improve the ambience of a neighborhood. Some residents also note the high incidence of “handicapped” cars but not handicapped residents, an occurrence they attribute to the close association of some renters to the nearby hospitals and doctors who can sign off on permit applications.

Rented housing cannot be stopped
Residents recognize that there is little they can do legally to stop houses and apartments being rented. But they would like to stop the rezoning, variances and exceptions that are being allowed by the City and its boards. Nearly every week, developers are applying for variances and exceptions in the village to allow new construction. Already the roads are jammed with parked cars during the College semesters. They will be come even more so. But more importantly the look of the village is changing.

150 Wentworth Street project is unwelcome
No other project in recent times is likely to have such an adverse visual impact than that originally proposed at 150 Wentworth Street, presently the site of the McAlister Funeral Home. The funeral home is well known and reported to be the most important serving the Roman Catholic community The development will entail the construction of condominium units with a combined size of about 40,000 sq ft.

Original request likely to be modified
The developer had a proposal before the Board of Zoning Appeal (BZA) seeking permission to build 18 units on the 1 acre site. Despite the site being about the largest in the Village, the developer sought variances and exceptions. The existing ordinance allows only 17 units, and certain setbacks. He sought 18 units and some relief from a setback. The request could only have been to improve the economics of the development and we doubt whether the BZA would have allowed it. So perhaps it was not a surprise that the request was withdrawn.

Although the developer has withdrawn his original application, a new application will need only modest modifications to conform with City ordinances. All that will be necessary will be to convince the Board of Architectural Review that the proposed building meets the BAR tests. We don’t think it will but who knows the Board’s collective opinion.

Project is out of scale with neighborhood
We don’t have a diagram of the originally proposed building. But it can be visualized as three parallel “Charleston single” houses of 4 stories and joined together at one end by a building that runs the length of the site. The architect in his drawing has highlighted the “single” buildings and softened the back building. In consequence, the eye beholds only the three single buildings and ignores the back building. It indeed looks pleasing. But in fact, the whole building will be observed from the road and will be massive. This fact was not lost on the Preservation Society which opposed the development.

Residents oppose the development
A number of residents of Harleston Village think that the proposed development is too massive and inappropriate for the site. Most of the buildings in the village cover 25% or so of the lot on which they are constructed. The ordinance states that no more than 50% of the site can be built on. The developer in his first application went for the maximum. He is reported to have said the condominiums will be “luxury” style but apart from expressing disbelief, the residents ask "so what?" Luxurious or not, the building is still too massive. It will overwhelm the surrounding buildings. It will do nothing for the fine Wentworth Mansion across the road or the smaller buildings along Wentworth Street. It terms of height, with 4 stories, it is too high. It will be higher than all other buildings in the village with exception of the Wentworth Mansion. At 40,000 sq ft, it will be by far the largest building in the village.

Can they really be luxury apartments?
The village residents also wonder as to what really is a "luxury" apartment. Some comparisons were made by City staff about the proposed units and the "luxury" development on East Bay Street where condominiums have an early 19 th Century or Georgian appearance. So residents are asked to believe that the developer will spend an estimated $400 - $500 a square foot for construction to achieve something similar. Such spending would indeed take the apartments to "luxury" status. But to recoup the outlay for construction and the land, and make a profit. the units would have to sell for considerably more than $500 a sq foot, we believe. Would a 2200 sq ft apartment sell for close to $2 million in this project? We doubt it. More likely the sale prices would need to be substantially less and the comcomitant quality of construction less-than-luxury to make them saleable.

So what do the residents want? Some have suggested that the lot be split into four. After all the lot is an amalgam of lots, put together years ago to allow for the operation of the funeral home. “Charleston Single” residences would blend in very nicely with the community. (see photo) Alternatively, leave the funeral home as is and let it be redesigned as medical offices. The building is impressive inside and could be modified for another use. View image

Of course these alternatives may be unattractive to the developer or the owner. If the lot has to be developed, then the development should be smaller and be in line with the houses in the neighborhood, the residents say. To view some other houses near 150 Wentworth Street press View image View image

Parking will be largely underground
Residents will also be interested in the City’s reaction to the plan to have the major part of the first floor - to house parking – underground. Only 4 feet will be above ground. We understand that the water table of an area so close to the Ashley River will be only a few feet from the surface. Of course the walls and floor could be made impervious so the floor remains dry. We can’t say that the developer’s plan won’t work. But we know of only a few other parking garages that have a floor underground and these are at a higher elevations to that proposed at 150 Wentworth Street. One of the grarages - at the Visitors Center- is reported to have drainage problems. We understand that to construct these underground facilites, water has to be pumped continuously to lower the water table during construction. The necessary lowering by some feet can cause problems for foundations of other buildings nearby with the sometimes creation of sink holes.

Will two wrongs make a right?
Those interested in the history of the lot will be interested to know that a very fine old house – the Hughes House - was demolished to make way for the funeral home. This was back in 1956 when the City seemed to lack meaningful preservation ordinances, or if they existed, they were not rigorously enforced. The rezoning and the destruction of the old house certainly created controversy as paper clippings of the period indicate. The rezoning issue went all the way to the Supreme Court and we are told that the demolition of the house was done before approval was granted. Whatever the legitimacy, the site was rezoned from residential to commercial by the City. This effectively was a “spot zoning” and allowed the construction of the funeral parlor. It is highly unlikely that such a re zoning would have been allowed today.

Some questions about the Neighborhood Association……
Many residents have joined together in an effort to fight the new development and they feel frustrated by the seeming lack of support from the City and the Harleston Village Neighborhood Association. According to the City web page, the Association meets every 2 months at 120 Broad Street. Over the last year or so, this was not true for there was only one meeting in 2006. This is understandably upsetting for many residents who now seek changes to the Board and the resumption of regular meetings. Even more upsetting is the fact that the Board supported the development without canvassing the views of members.

…..And for the City as well
As neighborhood opposition to the proposed condo development is widespread, residents were surprised to find that Council member Yvonne Evans came out in suppport of the project A list with more than 200 signatures of those opposed to the development suggests that residents are not being "represented" by their elected member of Council. She registered her support for the proposed development before the application was pulled from the BZA hearing. This support was given without any attempt to ascertain the view of the majority of the village residents. The Council member may well feel strongly about the project. But her unqualified support raises questions as to her true motivation. Did she have in mind the interest of the owners of the site more than she did her constituents? The McAlister family is long established in Charleston as is its funeral home business.

Your Comments:

Thank you for this article! I agree a moratorium on new development in the Historic District is badly needed, especially as CofC and developers (and homeowners) continue to pave over every inch of green space in Harleston Village until the new preservation plan can be enacted. I recently placed an historic easement in 11/06 on my backyard and home with Historic Charleston Foundation so that no new buildings can be built in the backyard, and my house can never be divided into condos.

Posted by: at March 22, 2007 08:53 AM

Mr.Warwick Jones is completely wrong in his statement that Councilmember Yvonne Evans came out in strong support of the plans for 150 Wentworth St. I am not sure where he gets his information from, but this would lead me to question much of what he claims to be true.

Editors note. The information was gained from inspection of the files at the City's Office at 75 Calhoun Street. The architect of the development at 150 Wentworth Street listed the Council member's name as a supporter. Members of the Harleston Village community also belive this to be true. Mr Jones did not use the adjective "strong".

Posted by: at March 22, 2007 10:34 AM

Reading this article, I was struck by the parallels that exist with a situation on James Island. Late last year, a large condominium complex, Heritage Oaks, was approved by the Planning Commission and City Council. The massive complexes of 3 and 4 conjoined units dwarf the abutting single-family homes, and are completely out of character with the area. City Councillor Bleecker supported the development, and overtly was biased in favor of the developer. In spite of the objections of the neighboring subdivision and many citizens of James Island, and in the face of evidence showing the potential adverse affects of the proposed plan, the measure was pushed through. Although it may not have occurred in an historic district, a pattern has emerged where the interests of developers and favored political insiders continue to overrule public sentiment and common sense.

Posted by: Louise Pecevich at March 25, 2007 01:22 AM