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City Council, February 24

Council honors a feisty Auschwitz survivor
Hopes for greenspace on Upper King Street
Marc Knapp

It was a bleak night and probably most of us would have preferred to have been somewhere else. And maybe staff wanted an early night too as the thermostat in the Council chamber was turned to an uncomfortable low level. Notwithstanding, the session lasted longer than most Council members hoped, I suspect. And it was mainly discussion on what we thought was an undeserving item that prolonged the meeting.

As usual, the City Council meeting began with presentations and recognitions. Last night’s session was notable with a proclamation honoring Joe Engel. Mr. Engel was 12 or 13 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland. He was sent to Auschwitz and selected for slave labor. He escaped the gas chamber, and the Death March when the Nazis attempted to remove evidence of the concentration camp in the face of the advance of the Soviet Army. Mr. Engel settled in Charleston in 1949 and opened a cleaning business. Members of his family and of the Jewish community gathered last night honoring Mr. Engel. In his late 80’s, he appeared physically frail before Council. But there was nothing frail in his short address. It was feisty and included praise for the Mayor, Council and the City, and hope for the future.

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We doubt that the Mayor thought the item would provoke long discussion or concern. He said that the City needed more greenspace in the area surrounding the upper section of King Street. Accordingly, the Council was asked to amend the Charleston Downtown Plan to provide for a new square at the King, Spring, and Columbus Streets intersection. Two lots comprise this site, the largest of which is occupied by a U Haul franchise. The Mayor noted that this amendment was only “aspirational”. It was not a rezoning and had no legal impact. It was essentially a signal of the City’s hope. Indeed, the amendment had been discussed with the owners and there were happy with the City’s aspiration.

Council was divided. Why mark out specifically the lot that was targeted? Why not amend the Plan and simply indicate that green space was needed in the general area? The fact that the City had it eyes on this particular parcel could deter some would-be buyers in the future and adversely affect the value. Some members thought the opposite and that the value could be enhanced.

Staff indicated that the selected parcel was ideal for greenspace and that there were few other lots in the general area that were so suitable. The Mayor said the City had no plans to buy the parcel. It was just signaling its hopes. The owners were free to sell the parcel to whom they wished and with the present zoning. But if the parcel were to become available, the City could move to acquire it by perhaps tapping funds from a private donor, or grant money.

Ultimately Council voted from the amendment with Council members Alexander and White opposed.

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An amendment to the Zoning ordinance also provoked some discussion. The City planned to rezone a property on the east side of East Bay Street and on the corner with Charlotte Street. The 1.03 acre site is in the Old City Height District with a 50/25 (height/setback in feet) limitation. The City was proposing a 55/30V limitation. The new limitation would be the same as the adjoining lot to the south which houses the Rivers’ commercial structures. Staff said that the developer had sought the change. Staff had seen the preliminary drawings of the commercial development and were pleased at what was proposed and subsequently supported the request. It also noted that the property was within the FEMA designated V Zone and the new zoning was probably more appropriate. Council agreed unanimously.

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