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City Council, June 19

Questions over need for a re-zoning to aid hotel project on King Street
DockStreet theatre renovation well over budget. Where is the minority participation?
Marc Knapp

The grievous loss of nine City firemen cast a shadow over yesterday’s Council meeting. The Mayor and Council members extended sympathy to the victims’ families and acknowledged the supreme sacrifice made by these men in the service of the community. Mayor Riley said that the tragedy had caused him to consider canceling the Council meeting. Much has already been said and written about the loss and we will add no more except our sympathy to the families and note our sorrow.

There were only two issues worth comment at last night’s meeting – one was on the agenda and the other wasn’t. The first related to a rezoning of the lot on which a new hotel is planned. The lot is on King Street next to Marion Square and the Old Citadel building. The other related to a proposed contract for the renovation of the DockStreet Theatre. The contract was not the issue; it was the participation of minorities.

City wants to rezone, again, the old County library lot
The rezoning of the property on which the new hotel is proposed was a surprise. Its inclusion in the agenda caused a number of citizens and the Preservation Society to speak against it. My associate Warwick Jones was one of those that spoke against it and after hearing the City’s reason, could still not see the purpose. Could there be something sinister planned?

Here’s a history. The lot is that where the old County library presently stands. When City amended its zoning regulations in 2006, the zoning of the King Street side of the lot was left as it was i.e. in the 3X height zoning district. The balance of the lot – about 1/3 of the total - was made part of the 55/30 district. The City has now decided to extend the 3X district to the whole of the lot. It said that the split height zoning forces greater mass towards King Street. The distribution of mass can be improved with the proposed zoning change.

Desire seems logical, but is it really?
In some respect, the City’s plan may seem logical. But is it? If this were so logical, why did it not occur when the changes in zoning were made a year or so ago? One also should note that the 3X zoning was an old zoning and remained only on King Street to facilitate the hotel’s construction.

Developer already had a variance and the nod for scale
The zoning may have been an impediment to good design. The height of the structure could have been much taller in front than the back if it conformed to building height limitations imposed under the zonings. But this problem was taken care of by the Board of Zoning Appeals that granted the developer a variance. A diagram of the proposed building is shown below. Although the BAR has yet to approve conceptual design, it did say that it was happy with the scale and the mass. It had no issue with the 105 foot height. The remaining issues were relatively minor.

Hotel0001a.jpg

So it is reasonable to ask why the rezoning? In a sense, the project was good to go!

Some sinister motive?
As my colleague asked, Is the rezoning a plan to thwart the legal action underway against the City, by the Preservation Society and the Historic Charleston Foundation? They took exception to the variance granted by the BZA last year. Or is the rezoning someway to allow the developer to add more mass to the design?

Preservation Society speaks
This is what the Preservation Society said last night. The 3X zone district is an obsolete zoning category. At a City council meeting on July 18, 2006, Mayor Riley called the 3X “archaic” or words to that effect. We agreed with the Mayor and were pleased that city council voted to eliminate this zoning category from much of the city at that meeting.

We also feel that extending the 3X zoning category is a clear example of spot zoning…..; We feel that spot zoning is bad policy and should not be allowed.

The Preservation Society was not opposed to a hotel on the site, just the size. It, the HCF and others argued before the BAR last month to have the mass reduced but failed in their effort. (See story May 31)

DockStreet renovation above budget, and no minority participation
The issue of minority participation in City contracts was spurred by a question by Council member Gallant. The Mayor added the contract for the Dock Street Theatre renovation to the agenda at the meeting. Council members had no information in front of them. Indeed, the only information was what the Mayor told them – the lowest bid was from NBM, the firm that restored City Hall; the bid price was $15.496 million; the next bid was $19.66 million; and the budgeted cost was $12.57 million. He wanted Council’s approval to begin negotiations with the NBM.

Council member Gallant asked about the minority participation in the contract. He was told that it was zero. This did not satisfy the Council member who was subsequently joined by the other African American Council members seeking some explanation. City staff assured the Council members that efforts had been made to involve minorities but there has been a lack of response. This was unsatisfactory for the Council members and discussion became heated.

Vote splits council
Council member Gallant sought to have the discussion over the contract delayed until he could get more information relating to minority participation. But Council member Bleeker, ever loyal to her Mayor, moved that negotiations on the contract be approved. It was put to the vote and passed with the 5 African American members voting against it.

Absence of minority participation is surprising
The absence of minority participation surprised me. I asked in Public Participation as to where the City and the contactor were advertising? It was obvious the City requests were not reaching the African-American business community. My colleague Warwick Jones noted that the County has adopted a participation target of 10% or more in contracts and procurement. It had quarterly reviews, and over the last year had consistently scored above this target in most areas, and some times well in excess of the target.

Rare confrontation
From our observation of Mayor Riley’s face during the exchange, Council member Gallant dropped some brownie points for the confrontation. We confess to some surprise also. The Council member has usually sided with the Mayor on issues and refrained from confrontation.

Council member Morinelli gets feisty too
Council member Morinelli was also in a feisty mood. She drew the line on an annexation which she saw as a possible “Trojan horse” to introduce a commercial zoning to a residential district on Marginal Road. She was told her fears were unfounded though she did not seem convinced. She later erupted when she asked for some explanation to the removal of some 160 trees on roads in her district. The information came to light in the local weekly newspaper which was questioning the removal. She had no knowledge of the removal, nor did staff or Council it seemed. But the removal was authorized by the Planning Commission. Why wasn’t I told, she asked?

Council member Morinelli, join the throng! There is so much that goes on in the City that goes unreported. And perhaps only a part of the blame may be assignable to the City. It is very difficult, if not impossible for a single citizen to keep tabs that all that takes place. Look at the City calendar and see all the meetings of City Committees and Commissions. Probably only half are covered by the press or attended by citizens. Charlestonwatch does it best to help!

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