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Board of Architectural Review, May 30

Board rejects preservationists' view that proposed hotel on Marion Square is too large
Developer told to use better quality materials
Warwick Jones

A decision by the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) on the proposed hotel facing Marion Square and abutting the old Citadel building was deferred. The developer was told to reconsider some aspects of the design and to consider the use of better quality materials for the exterior. However the Board agreed that there was no issue over the “mass and height” of the proposed building. This was probably the main contention of the some hundred or so citizens that turned up to protest the new development. See diagram of the proposed stucture.

Hotel0001a.jpg

We were amongst those that planned to speak against the development and were disappointed over the decision. Despite the likely accusation that we are tasting sour grapes, we have some comments on aspects of the meeting we found disturbing.

The public views were not fully heard. About 200 were in attendance and evenly divided between those for and against. Chairman Bennett in his wisdom decided to hear only a few of the speakers. He gave no indication before the public began speking that the overall time would be limited. Before stopping public comment, he allowed some speakers to well exceed the customary 3 minutes. He later asked whether anybody represented major groups. Three spokespersons for neighborhood associations rose to speak. But after that, no more comments were allowed. We have never seen the public, both antagonists and protagonists, gagged in this way. In our experience, all speakers at City meetings have been allowed to voice their opinion. When there were many speakers, the time limit for each speaker was reduced to a minute. We feel the action of the Chairman was wrong. Every member of the public should have been allowed to speak. Did the Chairman fear a repetiton of a confrontation similar to that at the Clemson hearing? At least at that hearing, everybody was heard.

The Board may have been intimidated. Mayor Riley sent a letter to the Board stating his support of the project and how important it was for Charleston. The Mayor appoints the members of the BAR. We might add that his nominations are approved by Council but in the years we have been attending Council meetings, we have never seen anything but rubber stamping by the Council. How proper is it for the Mayor to express support for a project which is coming before members of a committee that is supposed to be independent? He publicly supported the Clemson School of Architecture structure on George Street and was criticized for this. But it seemed nothing has rubbed off. Some of us would describe his actions as intimidation.

Some board members do not understand their obligations. Board member Harris is a new appointment. It seems she is not familiar with the BAR's allotted task. She gave a speech stating the need for such a development and the favorable impact on the East side community. It was a speech that may have been worthy of a Council member. But she is not a Council member, she is a member of the BAR. Her obligations are proscribed by the ordinance relating to the body. And that confines her judgment to the architectural issues, specifically the congruency of a new development to the surrounds. We wonder whether she has read the ordinance. We should also add that nobody was suggesting that a hotel not be built. Antagonists simply wanted a smaller hotel, perhaps 6 stories instead of 8.

There is a worrying gap between the BAR and the major preservation bodies. The BAR members are appointed to aid preservation. The body was formed to ensure, amongst other things, that new developments are “congruent” with surrounding structures. This judgment of congruency should be independent of zoning or political influence, at least that is what we are told by the City. How is it that this body can ignore the comments of the major preservation groups? These groups have done so much to preserve what we have. Preservation in turn makes the major contribution to the historic ambience of the City and consequently to its economic success – ie attracting tourists. Can the Historic Charleston Foundation, The Preservation Society and the National Trust be so wrong? And the body that approved the proposed Clemson School of Architecture structure, the Jewish Studies Center, the Addlestone Library and other buildings, be so right?

As can be gleaned from our comments, the major preservation groups were not in favor of the proposed structure. They wanted it reduced in scale and the height lowered. They said that the structure with its 8 stories, would overwhelm the very historic old Citadel building next to the proposed structure. They did not oppose the construction of a hotel – indeed they thought it was very appropriate for the site. They also asked for better quality materials on the exterior – for example stone as opposed to cement based products. Those few members of the public who were able to speak against the project echoed the sentiments of the preservation bodies.

City sponsored study had recommended a maximum of 6 stories.
One citizen quoted from a City sponsored study. It was entitled the Uptown District Urban Design Study and was prepared by HLW Planning Partnership. The study states that developments surrounding Marion Square should be increased to 6 stories to provide spatial containment in scale with the square. Buildings this height will not cast shadows over the Square. Implied, as the speaker noted, was that buildings no higher than 6 stories should be allowed. The study also stated that visual alignments around Marion Square will relate to the surrounding historic buildings. The City made no mention of the study by its consultant.

Need to revitalize King Street say protagonists
Protagonists for the building spoke of the need to revitalize King Street and the benefits of such a structure. Some spoke of the quality of the proposed building and opined that it would enhance Marion Square and not overwhelm the Citadel building.

Some speakers noted the opposition to the Charleston Place when it was being planned and the subsequent benefits derived by the community on its completion. This project had many similarities, they said. These speakers failed to mention the battle waged over the originally proposed plan for Charleston Place and which was backed by the City. The proposed structure was larger than that presently standing. The original plans also entailed the destruction of that block of commercial buildings which grace Meeting Street north of the hotel. The preservation groups successfully fought the proposal and consequently, the mass of the development was reduced. Perhaps the right conclusion might be that a hotel deos not have to be super-sized to be successful.

Only Board member Stockton takes issue with mass:
When the project was discussed by the Board, only Board member Stockton took issue with the mass of the building. He noted that at the first hearing some 2 years ago, the developer was asked to reduce the mass. The new plans have actually increased it. Other members stated that they were happy with the mass of the structure and the new height, 105 feet instead of 104 feet. Some had comments about certain aspects of the structure and the need for some minor adjustments, particularly on the ground floor. A number of board members commented on the importance of the building and the need for quality materials on the exterior.

Finally a motion was made to defer a vote for approval of the conceptual plan, to allow the developer to address some of the issues raised by the BAR members and the City staff. But these issues did not include a reduction of either height or mass. All members voted for the deferral with the exception of Board member Stockton who opposed the deferral and the implied acceptance of the height and mass.

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