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Planning Commission, October 21

Commission votes for Cal/Cooper Plan
Chairman shines, but quality of discussion and debate of others was embarrassing
Warwick Jones

We were disappointed with the Planning Commission’s decision last night to approve the City’s proposed Calhoun Street East/ Cooper River Waterfront Plan. But we were particularly disturbed by the absence of meaningful comment or discussion by Commissioners on the Plan or the issues raised by members of the public, neighborhood associations, the Preservation Society, The Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF) and the Coastal Conservation League (CCL).

Before any discussion, Commissioner Perry moves for acceptance
Commissioner Perry stunned us all, and probably Chairman McCann, when immediately on completion of public comments, she moved that the Plan be approved and with amendments proposed by staff and the Mayor, but also with the amendments proposed by the Historic Charleston Foundation and the Coastal Conservation League.

There was a long silence as presumably other Commissioners grappled as where to start. The CCL submission was 6 pages long and many of the comments expressed “unease”, not objections. Some referred to nuances of meaning. We have not seen the HCF submission. It was not on the Foundation’s web site this morning and the address by a spokesman to the Commission was short, and again referred mainly to “unease” and not opposition.

Could she be more specific as to what amendments she wanted?
So it was not a surprise when Commissioners asked as to whether Commissioner Perry could be more specific. Indeed, what exactly did she need from the HCF and CCL documents? “Everything and not everything” she said. After she skimmed through the documents and two attempts at clarification, we wondered whether the Commissioners were really any more enlightened.

Then Commissioner Legare came to the rescue. She said she was not happy about certain aspects of the Plan and indicated her opposition to extending the Accommodation Overlay to the western side of East Bay Street. This was supported by Commissioner Johnson.

Chairman McCann is very critical of the motion
There was a little more discussion and after all Commissioners had spoken, Chairman McCann weighed in with what was a passionate and succinct opinion as to how Commission should discuss the plan. He said that the plan was important and the opinion of the societies, citizens and neighborhood associations was also important and should be considered. This could not be done by considering the plan as a whole. The specific issues raised by all of the entities needed to be addressed. He said personally he was opposed to the extension of the Accommodation Overlay and gave his reasons. He thought a hotel at the East Bay and Calhoun Streets corner had no way of surviving. He also said he supported form base code and gave his reasons.

But most Commissioners were not swayed
As there was a motion on the floor which had been seconded, the Chairman was obliged to still call for a vote. We expected the Commissioners to be swayed by their Chair’s reasoning. How wrong we were! Commissioner Perry’s motion was approved with Chairman McCann and Commissioner Legare being the only two to vote against it. We suspect that both members were largely in favor of the plan but had strong feelings about the extension of the Accommodation Overlay.

The Commissioners’ almost nonchalant acceptance of the Plan was a slap in the face of all who had studied and commented on the plan. As the Chairman might say in the aftermath, they deserved better! We also wonder at the challenge to staff as they incorporate the proposals by the HCF and the CCL. Will the expression of “unease” lead to an amendment or just be ignored?

Extension of Accommodation Overlay was the most contentious issue
There was much said at last night’s meeting, some of which was a repeat of that said at previous PC meetings. Again, the extension of the Accommodation Overlay into Ansonborough and Wraggborough was the most contentious issue with both neighborhood societies and most other speakers in opposition. The CCL and HCF did not oppose the extension though never said it was a good thing. And understandably, those who spoke in favor of the extension were the Mayor, Mr. John Rivers who owns the property in Wraggborough where a hotel may be built, and the architect retained by Mr. Rivers.

Mayor provides some light relief
The Mayor got two opportunities to speak – at the opening of the discussion and at the end of the public discussion. The strongest mark he made was on the face of Eddie Bello, Division Director, Architecture and Preservation. The Mayor unintentionally struck him as he made a sweeping gesture with his arms. This provided some light relief in a generally intense meeting.

Extension of Accommodation Overlay into Ansonborough not necessary
We were surprised that after the public comments, the Mayor said he thought that it was not necessary to extend the Accommodation Overlay into Ansonborough. Was it the eloquence of the speakers or something else? We believe the City has been acquiring land along East Bay Street on the fringe of the Borough.

Mr. Rivers may still build an office complex
Mr. John Rivers said that he was unsure as to whether he would build a hotel and that the idea had first been suggested by the Mayor. He still may build an office complex. This ambivalence surprised us given the vehemence of an article he wrote for the Post and Courier where he accused residents of Ansonborough and Wraggborough of being NIMBY’s (not in my backyard) and not concerned with the public good. By inference, we assume he is building a hotel because of the public good. But we note he retains the right to build an office complex if economics warrant. So much for public good!

Attempted challenge to credibility of Neighborhood President
Mr. Rivers also attempted to challenge the credibility of Ms. Vangie Rainsford, President of the Wraggborough Neighborhood Association. He said that she had agreed to the hotel concept of the corner of East Bay and Calhoun Streets if the 6 lots he owned along Alexander Street were converted to Residential zoning, thereby creating some sort of buffer to a hotel. He had drafted a letter noting her agreement but she never signed it. Members of the Wraggborough association rose in Ms. Rainsford’s defense saying that they had seen a copy of the letter written by Mr. Rivers at the association’s last meeting and were well aware of the meetings with Mr. Rivers. Members of the Wraggborough Neighborhood Association had also unanimously voted to oppose the extension of the Plan at the last meeting.

Some of the changes proposed by the City and to be adopted:

• The 6 lots owned by Mr. Rivers along Alexander Street will be rezoned residential and not be part of the proposed hotel development.
• The hotel planned for the site will have no more than 100 rooms.
• The total number of new hotel rooms allowed under the plan will be 200, not 250.
• Height limit of 55’ for structures with 4 stories.
• Parking for new office developments that do provide on-site parking will be cut from 1000 ft to 800 ft.

Plan is more conceptual than prescriptive
Ms. Yvonne Fortenberry, Division Director, Design, Development and Preservation said a number of times that the plan was more conceptual than prescriptive. Its approval would not mean that all of the recommendations would be accepted by the BAR or other entities who need to give approval. Indeed she recognized there were shortcomings, particularly relating to traffic flows that need to be addressed or fine tuned.

The Plan will now go to City Council for approval

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