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City assaults an historic district

No public input sought for final plan

Warwick Jones

It is presently part of Charleston’s Historic District. As a consequence, all new buildings are subject to Board of Architectural Review (BAR) scrutiny. But if the City has its way, the special area that it calls Calhoun Street – East /Cooper River Waterfront (CSE/CRW) will become “Anywhere USA”. Few if any historic buildings will be preserved and they will be replaced by larger and taller structures. The area will cease to have historic architectural significance. It will become an intense retail, commercial, and institutional development. Its architecture and ambience will clash with those of historic Ansonborough and Wraggborough which abut the area.

Planning Commission to decide this week
The City released its plan in April and late last month sought approval from the Planning Commission to incorporate it into the Century V Plan and thereby make it part of the City ordinance. Neither Neighborhood Associations nor the public were consulted about the plan and indeed, it seems that members of the Planning Commission had little time to read the 107 page document. Fortunately for Charleston, The Preservation Society read the document, and not liking what it read, sought a deferral of a decision to allow more public scrutiny. The Planning Commission acceded to this request. It will consider it again at the meeting on Wednesday, July 15.

The document can be seen on the City web site press here. The district comprises some 60 acres. It stretches from Marion Square along both sides of Calhoun Street to the Cooper River. However on the Cooper River side of East Bay Street, it stretches to Laurens Street to the south, to Charlotte Street to the north. It also stretches two blocks or so further both north and south along East Bay and Washington Streets. Included in the area is the Aquarium, the proposed Ansonborough Field development, the Vegetable Bin and the East Bay Hardware Store, the Commercial buildings owned by John Rivers and the shopping center which contains a Starbucks on the corner of East Bay and Calhoun, also owned by Rivers.

Outgrowth of Preservation Plan
The study in a sense is an outgrowth of the City’s Preservation Plan that was developed a year or so ago. In this plan, the City spoke of refining its zoning and building code, Instead of having “one size fits all” type of approach, it planned to be neighborhood specific. It would define the characteristics of the say Harleston Village, and incorporate these in the zoning. This seemed sensible and was generally applauded. We understand that these studies have been completed at Brynes Downs in West Ashley and on parts of James Island. We also understand that a study of Cannonborough is under way.

The town planners call the approach now being used by the City as “form” base zoning. It is the shape and size of the building that count more than the use. And one might ask why take exception to the City using this approach to the CSE/CRW area? The answer is that it is an historic area though with few remaining historic buildings. In recent years there has been considerable construction of large commercial buildings, obviously City-approved. . These buildings have overwhelmed the remaining historic structures. And now having overwhelmed them, the City is using the new structures to define the character of the areas. Presently, the major part of the area is zoned General Business or Mixed Use. A small part, essentially the northern end of Ansonborough Field falls within the Accommodation Overlay. Again very generally, the height limitation for the district is 55’, and 50’ where it impinges on the Ansonborough and Wraggborough Neighborhoods

Taller, bigger structures, and greater density
Given the present economic conditions, the proposed plan of the City is not going to immediately change the nature of the district. But the recession will not last forever. So it is appropriate to ask what will it look like in the long term. A glance at the City plan will show the nature of buildings the City envisages. Most building will be 4 to 5 stories. However, the total height for 4 stories can range from 57' to 63': The 5 story structures will be from 69' to 75'. These height limits contrast with that of the present, generally 55’. However the study is site specific and much taller buildings – 6-8 stories - are recommended for the area near Dockside.These have height limits from 80' to 111'. There is also little provision for setbacks from the street. In consequence, most of the district could consist of buildings seemingly cloned from the Charleston County Library, the County Schools Building and the RBC Center- hardly architectural gems. This massive array would face, or confront the gracious and historic buildings that rim Wraggborough and Ansonborough along East Bay Street. The City plan gives diagrams of the buildings that are allowed. Presumably a developer can copy these designs and receive City approval. The BAR and public is shut out from influencing the final design.

Large increase in hotel room numbers
But there are issues beyond the out-of-place character that is proposed for the district. The City is proposing that the Accommodations Overlay zone be extended so it will cover both sides of Calhoun Street from the Aquarium and Maritime Center to East Bay Street. And on East Bay Street it will cover the corner properties on the west side as well as the east. The City is looking to create 250 hotel rooms and will approve 100 room hotels on a first-come, first- served basis. (This flies in the face of the Mayor’s promise some years ago not to allow construction of hotels with more than 50 rooms below Calhoun Street). Combined with those in the proposed Ansonborough Field development, 350 hotels rooms will be built in the district.

Big change in parking requirements
The proposed new hotel rooms coupled with the denser development raise the problems of traffic and parking. The plan makes no mention of the traffic generated by the build- out of the area under the new plan. But is does attempt to address the issue of parking. On-site parking will be provided on the ground floors of some of the new buildings. But it acknowledged that it will not be enough. It points to the spare capacity of existing garages to absorb the over flow. Presently, parking requirements can be satisfied if developers arrange a 10 year lease for parking within 400’ of the new construction. The City proposes that the distance be increased to 1000 feet for commercial developments. Theoretically at least, tenants will be able to park at nearby parking garages. But will they?

What happens after 10 years?
And as we have asked in relation to other developments, what happens after 10 years? Growth in tourist numbers could absorb much of the spare capacity in the garages. If this happens and no more garages are built, a lot more cars will be seeking spots in the boroughs of Charleston.

Citizens should be concerned
All the citizens of Charleston should be concerned about the proposed plan. It will do nothing to enhance the historic appeal of the City. It will do little to nothing to enhance tourism. Indeed it may well detract from the growth of tourist numbers. If the City’s hopes are realized to create another retail area downtown, then what will be the effect on King Street? To create a new district, do you threaten the viability of another?

Increase in traffic
One can hardly escape noticing the density of traffic on the Peninsula. Traffic jams used to be confined to Friday evenings and the weekends. Now they seem to occur every day. The Ansonborough Field development coupled with that of the rest of CSE/CRW will exacerbate the problem. Making Washington Street a more important conduit may help the flow but allowing parking on both streets may negate much of the benefit. We know professionals that have closed shop on Broad Street because of traffic on the Peninsula. We also know folk who refuse to come to the Peninsula during the day because of the traffic. They won’t be changing their minds any time soon and we suspect they may be joined by others as they confront the consequences of the proposed City plan.

More parking problems for Ansonborough and Wraggborough
And as for the relaxed parking restrictions, Ansonborough and Wraggborough residents will be hostile. They know, and so should the City, that people will not walk 1000’ if they can park closer. And just about all of Ansonborough and Wraggborough is closer to parts of the district than a parking garage. The residents of the borough have complained for some years about the problems of parking. Spots in the neighborhood are taken up by itinerants. This has meant that residents often cannot park close to their dwellings. Their quality of life is being reduced by City policy.

What are the City’s motives?
We are not sure why the City is pursuing this plan. Of course, the report gives a lot of high minded reasons, many of which we support. It does not mention the increase in the tax base and the potential improvement in City finances. Nor does it mention the poor financial performance of the Aquarium and the low patronage of the retail developments that abut the Aquarium. Undoubtedly these would be helped if more people can be drawn to the area. But we would remind the City that most people come to Charleston to visit the historic attractions, and latterly, to shop along King Street, attracted by its intimacy, historic character and visual appeal. How economically viable the new large scale development will be remains to be seen, but we would not hold our breath.

City should have a more measured approach
In our view, a more measured and conservative approach should be adopted for the area. Buildings that are of a size and character that match those of Ansonborough or Wraggborough should be encouraged. Let there be mixed use but also a far greater proportion for residential use. Make it more visually attractive and match the character of its surrounding boroughs – not a walled fortress guarding the entrance to the historic district of the city and blocking the view to the waterfront with a walled tunnel running from East Bay to Marion Square.

Let the public decide
The City should also seek the opinion of the public on its proposed plan. It may argue that it received the opinion of the public but speaking to participants of the City sponsored charrette, they viewed it as a sham with no real intent to gain the public’s views. We suspect the public will be very vocal in its views when it realizes the City’s intent.

If viewers share our concern, they can send an e-mail to the City Planning Commission, addressed singletone@ci.charleston,sc,us. Of course, they can also attend the meeting and speak.

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