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City Council, February 23

No moratorium on new hotel development
But City plans a study with a report within 90 days
Warwick Jones

The most important item on last night’s agenda was a proposed moratorium on new hotels for the Peninsula. It was the Mayor’s idea and apparently in the minds of Council members, a bad idea. We were told by a Council member before the meeting began that the item would be pulled from the agenda. It was effectively, but Council agreed to a study of the issue of new hotels, and a report in 90 days.

A number of citizens turned up to speak to the issue and as a representative of the Preservation Society commented, he wondered what he was doing at the meeting as he just read an on-line report in the Post and Courier saying that the moratorium was dead. However, he and others went on to say that the growing number of hotels and hotel rooms on the Peninsula was an issue and they welcomed a study.

The Mayor acknowledged he was responsible for suggesting the moratorium, and admitted the absence of any support from Council. But he also said that there was real concern about growing hotel numbers on the Peninsula, and the issues that accompanied this growth. As another Council member noted, hotel room numbers had been growing about an average of 10% a year. If this rate continued, the character and nature of the Peninsula would drastically change.

We thought the discussion on Council about the need for a report was excellent. Nobody proposed a solution to the traffic congestion and quality of life issues. But there clearly much to study just than hotels in isolation.

Council member Moody got attention when he presented some hypothetical figures relating to a 100,000 square foot building dedicated to 1). A hotel. 2) A commercial building and 3) a residential development. He estimated that the investment would be respectively $40 million, $25 million and $20 million. But he noted that the parking requirements for a hotel would be only 66 spaces, for a commercial space, 400 spaces, and for residential, 150 spaces. He also noted the tax generated by each category and that for the hotels – property, accommodation and fees - was considerably higher than the other two categories. And other Council members also pointed out that hotels were also large employers.

But what if hotel construction was halted on the Peninsula? Hotels probably would be built in neighboring municipalities. The patrons of the hotels would still drive to the Peninsula and contribute to its traffic woes.

It seemed clear that hotels generated less traffic and were economically superior to the other two categories. But wait said others. What about the quality of life, the diversity of activities. Charleston was a working city. It should not become an entity devoted almost exclusively to tourism. And as also pointed out, a hotel was difficult to modify to other uses, commercial and residential construction not so much. If there were a downturn in tourism, the proliferation of hotels on the Peninsula could lead to the emergence of “black holes” in the community.

Council member Seekings also had some interesting observations. He thought there were a limited number of sites on the Peninsula where hotels could be sited. He detailed six sites and suggested that the best use for each was a hotel – largely because of the location of the site and its size. The sites he noted included States Port Authority Building on Concord Street, the present parking area along Anson Street between Market and Pinckney Streets, the Rivers site at the corner of Calhoun and East Bay Street, and 477 King Street across from the PeopleMatter Building.

We confess to thinking during the discussion as to why we had this problem with hotels. Over the 14 years we have been attending Council meetings, numerous committees had been created to study the issue of traffic, tourists, hotels etc. Reports had been filed but seemingly, nothing much changed. Which brings us back to Council member Seeking’s comments. He noted the action of the City a few years ago when it removed a 70 properties from the Accommodation Overlay and extended the area that limited hotel construction to only 50 rooms. He opined that the regulations that went with the changes were not totally enforced, and a number of variances and exceptions were allowed by the City. The inference was clear. If the City had rigorously enforced its regulations, there may not have been this problem.

Some Council members suggested that the study should include the impact of short term rentals. The Mayor was disinclined to do so noting that a study was underway by the Committee for Community Development. Presumably, the conclusion of this study could ultimately have a bearing on that of hotels.

The Mayor said that the study would be made by staff and in conjunction with the College of Charleston, the Convention and Visitors Bureau and others. Its conclusion would be available in 90 days. We wonder at the limited time for the study and its likely depth. It seems no consultants will be retained.

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Last night’s meeting also included a presentation by the Lowcountry Food Bank. It spoke of its organization, sponsors and reach throughout the community. We are sure it is doing a good job and that it helps the needy. But one figure thrown out caused us to reflect. We thought we heard that 1 in 6 residents of the area were getting assistance from the Bank. This is an extraordinary high number in our opinion. It is high because the unemployment rate in Charleston is a low. The figure for Charleston/North Charleston in December last was 4.5%. And also, the needy get food stamps from the Federal Government. There are lot of folk it seems who may not be partying but are certainly indulging.

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