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City Council, December 15, 2009

Council not a rubber stamp!
Deferrals on the Green Plan and Cal/Cooper Plan
Marc Knapp

There was a lot of time for reflection last night. City Council did not wind up its meeting until well after midnight. Issues relating to the extension of the agreement for the development of Ansonborough Field, public hearings on the City’s Green Plan and the Cal/Cooper Plan, and more discussion on next year’s budget took up the hours. If the Mayor had his way, the session would have ended much earlier. But he didn’t. Council refused to rubber stamp his proposals; it debated the merits and in some cases rejected the Mayor’s requests. And that was the reflection; Council has come a long way in the last few years.

Ansonborough Field Development Agreement amended again
The first item of import that was discussed was another extension of the agreement to develop Ansonborough Field. Last night was the fourth amendment to the agreement which is now getting complex. The purchase price remains the same at $16 million and the obligations of the developer remain largely, but not exactly the same. The developer East -West Partners can now sell off a parcel of the property on the corner of Calhoun and Washington Streets and on tract A to another developer to construct a 66,000 ft2 office building. The sale price of $3 million, is to be paid to the City. The remaining development can be staggered and the affordable housing units, both for sale and for rental, will now all be shifted to parcel C on the southern end of the Field. There was more relating to the schedule of payments and obligations for affordable housing.

The Mayor spoke strongly in favor of the amendments and said that the credibility of the City was at stake if it refused to make the amendment. East-West had made a $3 million investment preparatory to moving ahead with development and this would be lost. He said that the nation had suffered a dreadful recession which had set back East-West plans. He also said that the new office building would cost some $14 million and immediately create jobs, sorely needed at the moment.

Some members thought it should be put out for bid again
This made little impression on some Council members. The conditions had changed and Council member Alexander said the credibility of the City could suffer if the project were not put out for bidding again. Council member Mallard thought that the sale price could be well above $16 million. Council member White was also skeptical and predicted that in 12 months time, Council would be considering the fifth amendment for the East-West Partners agreement. Council member Lewis thought that the affordable housing provision was a sham. It may be called “affordable” but it wasn’t really. You might as well forget about the affordable housing component in selling the property, he said. In the final vote, only two Council members opposed the amendment – White and Mallard.

Green Plan hearing draws a large crowd
The Mayor spoke strongly about the City’s Green Plan, the enthusiasm of Green Committee members, the need to provide leadership, the need to stop the growth of green-house gas emissions, and to take positive steps towards conservation. The resolution endorsing the Green Plan was before Council and was the subject of the public hearing. Some hundred or so citizens turned up last night, many of whom spoke against the plan.

Among the endorsers of the Resolution and the Green Plan were the Mayor’s favorite organizations, the Coastal Conservation League and the Historic Charleston Foundation. There were about 20 other speakers, all generally warning of the consequences of global warning, green house gas emissions and the need for action. And even if you did not believe that man was contributing to the problem, the Resolution was a step towards conservation of natural resources and providing renewable energy, they said .

Roughly the same number of speakers “for” as “against”
If the opponents to the Resolution were outnumbered by proponents in attendance, the number of speakers was roughly the same. Speakers against the Resolution disputed that man was the cause of global warming, they said the resolution was too strong and impinged on civil rights. Some of the objectives were not the domain of the City but of the State or Federal Governments. And what of the cost of the proposals? There were no estimates. We were amused by the reckoning of one speaker - she tallied up the speakers for the Resolution and noted that only 20% or so were entrepreneurs or worked in the free market. The others were "ivory tower elite" – presumably working for the government, non profits or academic institutions.

Dutifully and not surprisingly, Council member Evans moved to approve the Resolution. The Mayor followed and said that the Resolution was just that, a blue print for moving forward. Nothing became law, and any thing that was proposed as law had to become before Council.

Resolution was a springboard to ordinances and should be treated seriously
Maybe so said Council member White, but a Resolution passed by Council was a strong springboard to an ordinance so it could not be so easily dismissed. He also noted the heavy burden of reports that he had received in recent weeks – in particular the budget – and the inability to fully study all of them. But he had some 120 proposed amendments to the Green Plan. He also asked why there were statements in the Green Plan that were out of the City’s control. Why had staff even allowed these to remain in the text? Council member Wilson was the most pointed in her criticism. She said she was happy to go “green” but in her time! She preferred technology to provide cheaper alternatives rather than have to make commitments now. Despite the 2 years in the making, she thought the Plan was rushed. She scoffed at the proposal for a tax on emissions and from idling. She buys old large cars, because she is thrifty. She does not drive a lot but uses a car to transport her instrument (a harp) to concerts, something a small car is unable to do . She clearly resents a resolution that directs her to buy a smaller but more fuel efficient car.

Despite the pleas of the Mayor, Council voted unanimously to defer consideration of the Resolution for 60 days. In the meantime, the Plan is to be studied by members and staff and improved, presumably with the excision of extreme statements and those that deal with matters out of the control of the City.

Mayor obviously keen to get Cal/Cooper Plan approved
And then there was the Cal/ Cooper Plan. There was no doubt about the desire of the Mayor to get this Plan incorporated in the Century V Plan and thereby into an Ordinance. He interrupted Council discussion a number of times to press home his views and seemed oblivious or uncaring about such things as Roberts Rules. The Mayor may ultimately get his way but Council last night unanimously agreed to defer voting on the issue for 30 days, sufficient time it presumed for the owner of the site for a proposed hotel in Wraggborough to meet with the neighborhood association.

Viewers of this site should be familiar with the Cal/Cooper Plan. It ostensibly seeks to revitalize the area along Calhoun Street and around the Aquarium. It will do this by introducing form based zoning. It will also move to change traffic flows and parking along East Bay, Washington and Calhoun Streets But most of the opponents of the Plan last night focused on the extension of the Accommodation Overlay into Wraggborough to include the properties on the corner of East Bay Street and Calhoun, and owned by Mr. John Rivers.

Some residents now approve the Accommodation Overlay extension
Up until last night, the Wraggborough community was unanimous in its opposition to the extension of the Accommodation Overlay and this was conveyed to the Planning Commission. Despite comments of the Chairman about the very adverse affect of hotels on the harmony of a community, the Commission went ahead and voted for the Plan as a whole and did not separate the individual issues. Last night, there were a number of folk who lived on Alexander Street who supported the plan. They said that the hotel would be the least disruptive of the alternatives for the site and that the housing buffer that the developer now promised would mitigate the any adverse impact of the hotel. But there were still many speakers who opposed the hotel and spoke of the adverse impact on the community.

The Preservation Society voiced its concerns which were the same as at past meetings - the extension of the Accommodation Overlay, the shortcoming of form based code, traffic flows, and the need to look at this plan in the light of proposed changes to the Comprehensive Plan, the Union Pier Plan, the increase in cruise ship visits and other Plans. The latter point was taken up by other speakers including the President of the Ansonborough Neighborhood Association, She asked that voting on the Plan be deferred until after the Historic Charleston Foundation's forum, scheduled for early January, relating to assessing the impact of the various plans – Union Pier, the Market Area, Cal/Cooper, the Gilliard and the new offices for the City could be studied.

Mr. John Rivers publicly wondered what the fuss was about. He was not going to be party to a shoddy project, nor was he committed to a hotel. It would depend on the financial analysis which he had yet to undertake. If it were not financially feasible, it would not be undertaken. He thought that the hotel was the least intrusive of his options.

Mr. Rivers attitude is puzzling
Mr. Rivers may be right in his last assumption though many would dispute it. But we find it hard to understand that he has not undertaken an analysis of the economics of a hotel. He certainly has made a lot of effort in pursuit of a venture whose economic viability is unknown. And although the provision of a housing buffer along Alexander Street may confine the intrusion of the hotel into the community, Mr. Rivers is giving up a sizeable part of his property and committing to spending on residential construction which will reduce the economic viability of the hotel. It seems that Mr. Rivers wants to shoot himself in the foot.

Hotel will not be built if an entrance on East Bay is not possible
The Mayor also noted in response to a comment, that there would not be any vehicular entrance to the hotel from Alexander Street. The only entrance could be on East Bay Street. If this were not possible or not allowed, then the project was dead. Some folk who are allegedly expert in these matters say that the SCDOT will not approve an entrance on this busy road and so close to an intersection.

Council member confused by support for hotel
Council Mitchell opened the Council discussion and admitted confusion. Wraggborough was in his area. He attended neighborhood associations meetings and participants had been unanimously opposed to the extension of the Accommodation Overlay. Who were these people that were favoring the extension? He had never seen them before, they never attended neighborhood meetings. He proposed that a decision on the Plan be deferred and for Mr. John Rivers to meet with the neighborhood with a view to settling differences. The Mayor was not happy with this and pleaded with Council to take up Council member White’s suggestion that the Plan be voted on immediately but the second reading be deferred until January 15 or so. Council member Mitchell said no, I want it my way! And he got it, with an almost unanimous vote – the Mayor being the only one to vote against it.

Council member seeks alternative to franchise fee hike
By the time the budget came around for its second reading, it was close to midnight. Most of us wondered where Council member Gregorie got his energy from. But there was plenty of it as he pressed his concern over the increase in the franchise fee on utility bills. The increased fee is expected to raise $3.8 million in 2010 and plug the budget deficit. The Council member thought that a disproportionate amount would fall on the poor and aged and sought to exclude them from the increase. The Mayor said that it was not possible under state law. The Council member then spent much time questioning CFO Bedard about other possible budget cuts – overtime, technical services, staff generally.. The answers were the same as at the last meeting. Further cuts could be made but they would impact essential services.

So did Council member Mallard
Council member Mallard was particularly harsh. He felt that he and Council were being deprived of information and he cited a number of requests that he made that had not been satisfied. He accused the administration of lack of transparency. He thought there were other avenues that could be pursued instead of hiking the franchise fee. Some of the property owned by the City could be sold to release funds.

At the final vote, Council members White, Mallard, Gregorie and Gallant voted against

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