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Planning Commission, August 17

Staff told to tweak CSE/CRW Plan
Make compromises to incorporate views expressed at special meeting

Warwick Jones

There was a strong response at yesterday’s special meeting of the City of Charleston’s Planning Committee. The special meeting was called to allow citizens to express their feeling about the City’s Calhoun Street-East/ Cooper River Waterfront Plan (CSE/CRW). The Plan was completed some months ago and was presented to the Planning Commission in June. Because of the far-reaching consequences, and the limited opportunity for the public to have commented on the plan, the Commission deferred a decision on incorporating it into the City‘s ordinances at its two previous meetings. It deferred a decision again at yesterday’s meeting.

Majority of attendees were in opposition
We estimate that over 100 persons attended yesterday’s meeting, the majority of which were opposed to the plan in its present form. The first speaker and in favor of the plan was Mayor Riley. He spoke of the need to revitalize the Cooper River area that surrounded the Aquarium and was part of the Plan. He also spoke of strengthening the Calhoun Street corridor. More emphatically, he spoke of the need for more hotels and the part they would play in stabilizing the area. He also noted that the northern corner of East Bay and Calhoun Streets was going to be developed some day and that maybe a small and mid-priced hotel would be better than a commercial development.

Staff made changes to Plan prior to meeting
The Mayor was followed by staff and the consultants who prepared the Plan. Ms Yvonne Fortenberry, Division Director of Planning, Preservation and Development told the Commission that there had been considerable modifications to the plan in recent days. This was largely a reaction to some of the views that had been expressed by members of the public. She also said the changes were mostly of the text to avoid confusion. Two of the changes were the scaling down of some of the tall buildings planned, and the removal of a conceptual parking garage on the site of the Federal Building. This garage was not built or planned and it was therefore inappropriate to make it part of the Plan.

Vote again deferred
Some of us noted that it was strange that a plan should be amended just before it was to be discussed at a public meeting. The public had no knowledge of the changes and was not able to properly assess and discuss them. This was also noted by the Chair of the Commission, Mr. Frank McCann and no doubt played some role in the decision of the Commission to defer a vote.

But there was another reason for a deferral. There was clearly a lot of opposition to the Plan, and in particular to the extension of the Accommodation Overlay zone into parts of Wraggborough and Ansonborough. One Commissioner was particularly harsh on staff and the seeming wide gap between what the public wanted and what the plan proscribed.

Staff to get with public and interested parties over next 60 days
How could there be such a large difference considering staff and the consultants met with the public? The Commission voted unanimously to defer consideration of the Plan for 60 days and instructed staff to get with the public and interested parties such as the Preservation and neighborhood societies, to craft a more acceptable Plan.

There was predictable opposition to many aspects of the plan. Critics included the Preservation Society, The Historic Charleston Foundation and Presidents of the Ansonborough and Wraggborough Neighborhood Associations. Some speakers were sympathetic to broad aspects of the Plan such as the revitalization of the Cooper River area and aesthetic alterations.

Major criticism related to Accommodation Overlay
Perhaps the major criticism was directed to the extension of the accommodation overlay and the plans to add 250 hotel rooms on properties that are on the fringes of Ansonborough and Wraggborough. Speakers noted the noise, disturbances and traffic that the hotels would bring and the impact that they would have on the abutting residential areas. Some speakers noted their own experience with new hotels built near their residences, and in particular the noise associated with deliveries, and the collection of trash early in the morning. Speakers from Wraggborough noted the likely increased traffic problems on Alexander Street.

A resident of Wraggborough spoke of other hotel developments that were nearby the CRE/CRW area. There would be 6 hotels, not just the two that the planner referred to within a mile radius of his residence. How can the Plan ignore developments in the surrounding area? How can the planners be ignorant of these other developments?

Problems of infrastructure
There were also the problems of infrastructure. The Plan proposed changing the flow of traffic on some streets. In particular it wanted to make East Bay Street a one-way flow into the City and Washington Street a one-way flow out of the City. Parking would also be allowed on East Bay Street, and no parking would be allowed on Calhoun Street in the area of the study. Speakers pointed to the problems created which were not addressed by the Plan. Where would the Buist Academy buses be parked? What happened to traffic on Washington Street when tour ships were in port? Presently the street is closed to regular traffic except that related to the ships.

And were the streets of Charleston wide enough to accommodate all of the traffic likely to flow from projects already approved and those flowing from the new Plan? Traffic at peak hours and the weekend was already congested along the main corridors. It was about to be exacerbated.

And proposed buildings too massive
And the scale of the buildings, particularly in the Cooper River area were very large and out of character with other buildings in Charleston. They were also incongruous with those in Ansonborough and Wraggborough though staff claimed that the Plan was “sympathetic” to the boroughs and the construction in the boroughs or abutting them would retain the present height limits. Speakers noted that there had been little recognition of preservation in the Plan even though it was an outgrowth of the City’s own new Preservation Plan.

No speaker took issue with the increase in distance from 400 feet to 1000 feet for off site parking related to new developments. This may have been a reflection of concentration on other issues rather the absence of an issue. The Plan relaxes parking requirements generally but some developments may still need to provide off-site parking but at a reduced level. Will those people who the Plan assumes will use the parking stations, park in the neighborhoods? One speaker noted the confusion of the plan with the coincidence of the accommodation and digital corridor overlays. It was hard to glean from the plan exactly what the parking requirements might be for the CSE/CRW district.

No details are yet available as to how the City is going to address the Commission’s directive to incorporate more of the public’s requests. We would look for a public workshop.

We expect Plan to be toned down
Considering the bluntness of the Commission's request, we expect the resubmitted Plan will be toned down, particularly in relation to the extension of the Accommodation Overlay. Staff will not have an easy task– defining a path that lies somewhere between the Mayor’s wishes and those of the public, a path that may be impossible to draw. But as one Commissioner told us privately, the staff cannot come back to the Commission with a plan that is unaltered and ignores what the public said at the meeting.

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