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BAR Meeting, December 15

BAR approves College Dormitory development off King Street
We think the location is good, but the scale overwhelming

Warwick Jones

We were surprised and disappointed at the decision of the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) to give conceptual approval of a plan to construct a dormitory for the College of Charleston. The dormitory is to house 400 students and would be located on lots behind King Street that presently are used for parking. Although we had no issue with the location, the proposed structure was far too large for the site in our view. It is too visible even though it is behind King Street shops, and the proposed height is a long blot on the City’s skyline.

It is possible that the City and the applicant were also surprised at the decision and the easy passage to approval. If there are zoning issues, and in this case there are, the plans normally go first to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). But because there may have been issues of height, scale and mass that would have made zoning decisions moot, the applicant sought the BAR hearing. For the record, the zoning height limit is 80 feet, the height of the proposed structure.

Viewers can see some of the diagrams submitted by the applicant and draw their own conclusion. Press View image for site plan, View image for East-West Elevation, View image for North-South Elevation, and for Streetscapes showing view from Marion Square, View image, from Calhoun and George Streets View image, and from Phillip and King Streets View image.

The applicant was listed as Charleston College Housing. We understand that the group is controlled by the Beach Company and the McAlister development group. The latter has constructed dormitories for the College of Charleston. The Beach Company is the registered owner of the main lot on which the dormitory would be built. The College of Charleston has not yet made a decision on who will build the dormitory and where, and Charleston College Housing has not yet submitted its plan to the college. It said last night that to shape its plan and work out the economics, it needed the guidance of the BAR as to what was acceptable.

And although the BAR did not give the developer “carte blanche”, the ability to maintain the footprint and 8 stories, certainly supports the economics of the proposed dormitory. The City said that a number of issues need to be resolved over the development – roof line, heights at certain view points, elevator shaft and more. The developer also conceded that the plan was preliminary and much more work needed to be done.

There were many supporters of a student dormitory in attendance. Some were property owners along King Street. Others spoke in support because the dormitory would take students out of the suburbs. But as a BAR member noted, many of those rising to speak supported the idea of the dorm at its proposed location, but not necessarily the proposed development.

This author was the only person to rise and unequivocally oppose the proposed structure. I thought that two to three stories ought to be lopped off the plan and that the single large structure should be split. Representatives of the Preservation Society and the Historic Charleston Foundation also spoke with a mixture of praise and soft criticism. The “issue of height” and the “height of the structure needs some more work” were gently stated. The Preservation Society did have a number of other issues that needed to be studied and called for a deferral on the decision to approve.

Only one member of the BAR seemed to be listening- Phyllis Ewing. She thought the proposed development was too big and voted against it. The other members had no issue with the height and scale though one said that the proposed development was at the threshold of what was acceptable. BAR member Schmitt said he had no problem with the height but rather what would be seen at the high points. He urged the developer to become more aggressive and design something that was not generic. He also urged more attention to the walkways and connectivity at the ground level

Other members supported Mr. Schmitt’s view and some expressed unease about the straight roofline. This needed to be worked on.

The surface diagrams submitted by the developer are without a scale. Roughly, we calculate the footprint of the main building to be about 25,000 square feet. With 8 stories, the structure will contain about 200,000 square feet. Assuming a construction cost of $150 a square foot, the total cost of construction would be about $30 million. Although the BAR will undoubtedly try to make the building as pleasing to the eye as possible, we don’t believe a gem is in the making. The structure is purpose built and economics are important. The cost of the structure should be the most important determinant of the rent that students pay. This rent has a ceiling and it is not very high.

Given the limited responsibilities of the BAR, it was not appropriate to discuss certain issues last night. However, these issues could be raised at a BZA hearing which would be scheduled only if the College decides to proceed with the plan discussed last night. But if there is a BZA hearing, we would state the lack of housing for students has occurred only because the College chose to expand. The Peninsula cannot absorb the 11,500 students that now attend the College without neighborhoods being disrupted or the quality of life diminished. The new dorm in my view will do little to alleviate the problems of the neighborhoods around the college. And any benefit will have to be offset by the impact of 400 students concentrated in a building behind King Street. Surrounded by college buildings and retail stores, the block is already busy. It will be even busier with a new and large dormitory. George, King and Calhoun Streets are busy just about all day. What will it be like when students move in and out at the end of the academic year? And looking at the conceptual plan, it won’t be easy access to the building. But this is but one of the many issues that needs to be resolved.

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