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City Council, July 11

Shuttle service for hotels off Peninsula not mandatory
Council gets its way on amended Workforce Housing ordinance
Marc Knapp

The controversial issue of a building moratorium on James Island was not discussed last night. Council member Wilson couldn’t be present so the matter was deferred. And in our opinion, just as well. The Council meetings stretched to over 5 hours with the other controversial items. How long would the meetings have been with the inclusion of the James Island issue?

If Council members were wearying with time, it didn’t show in the late discussion over the zoning issues that dominated the agenda. There were large differences in opinions on some issues and exchanges were often heated.

Despite the favorable recommendation from the Planning Commission, Council did not go along with all of the staff recommendations to amend the Accommodations Overlay. The amendments required the Board of Zoning Appeals in its evaluation of accommodation uses to:

  • Consider the location and design of guest drop off and pick up areas
  • Require additional information on parking and public transit provisions for employees
  • For hotels outside the core area, commitment to a shuttle bus to the downtown area.

We’d generalize and say there were few issues with the first two recommendations particularly as staff emphasized the need for great provisions for parking or public transport for the workers in the hospitality sector downtown. The major issue was over the last point. Requiring hotels in say West Ashley to provide a shuttle to the Peninsula would be costly and place them at a disadvantage to those in say Mount Pleasant and North Charleston. And besides, considering the length of time to get to downtown during some parts of the day, are hotel guests going to wait for the return of a shuttle to begin their journey?

Council split evenly 6/6 when voting on the recommendation as presented in its entirety. The tie vote meant the recommendation failed. Council then voted on the individual points, passing the first two but rejecting the shuttle bus provision.

Staff also recommended that additional restrictions be placed on off-site parking for restaurant and catering uses. For some Council members, the restrictions were not severe enough. Yes, the existing ordinance spelled out off-site parking restrictions but in the opinion of Council member Lewis, some parking lots with limited capacity were being used by more than one restaurant to fulfill their legal obligations. Council member Waring thought that the stipulated parking requirements, based on the floor space of a restaurant were unrealistic. And Council member Seekings stated the need for transparency and that citizens should be given an opportunity to weigh in on requirements when it affected their neighborhood.

The issue was deferred and staff will reconsider the recommendations.

And then there was the issue of Mixed Use-Workforce Housing (MU-WF). But first some background. Affordable Housing, or the lack of it has been a long time issue for the City. In the past, the City has drawn on HUD funds to finance Affordable Housing though realistically, the provision has been meager. The Trump administration has indicated an intent to close down HUD and presumably, funding for affordable housing. This may have been a catalyst for the City to seek other funding though we suspect these efforts would have been made anyhow. The City has supported an effort by Senator Kimpson to push the state legislature to allow municipalities to mandate inclusionary zoning – i.e. mandate Affordable Housing. The City also plans a referendum later this year on a bond issue to fund Affordable Housing. The MU-WF zoning was introduced in the City some years ago with limited success. It effectively allows a developer to increase the density of dwelling units in return for creating below market rate housing. The existing zoning mandates that 15% on all units be let at below market rates for 10 years.

Earlier this year, the City’s Community Development Committee (CDC) recommended that the percentage of Work Force (WF) housing units in the zoning should be increased to 20% for a 25 year period, and that developers be given an option to pay a Fee in lieu (FIL) of providing the WF housing. The FIL is determined by a formula tied to the square footage of the building and the number of affordable units that are constructed. The proposed FIL is $5.10 per sq.ft. and is integral to another formula that is used to determine the total amount paid to the City. The CDC recommendation went to the Planning Commission which unanimously rejected it and in turn recommended 15% WF housing and a 15 year term. It made no recommendation on the FIL as it is determined by a formula based on the percentage of WF housing and the term. A non-recommendation as one developer pointed out was not an endorsement of the proposed fee but an expectation that Council would work out the fee based on the ultimate percentage and term.

It was a long debate and followed warnings by a number of developers in the public hearing that the proposed FIL in the amended ordinance was too high and that developers may eschew the proposed zoning.

There was a lot of discussion and differences of opinion. Council members Seekings and Gregorie doubted that the CDC proposal would lead to permanent affordable housing. Council member Seekings said that the FIL was important as the funds collected would go to the City to support its own affordable housing effort. He thought the FIL should be much lower as he feared the suggested level would deter developers from using this option.

Council member Mitchell, Lewis and Williams were in agreement that the original terms of the amendment should be retained. They rejected the recommendation of the PC. On the other hand Council member Moody was happy with the PC recommendation.

We thought Council member White made sense. He was happy to support the original CDC recommendation but added that nobody could be sure as to what the appropriate FIL should be. So let’s pass the proposal and come back in 6 months and review it. If no developer has moved ahead with a project then we can consider a reduction in the FIL. The Mayor supported this amendment.

Council voted first on the percentage of WF units and the term as in the original proposal, and with Council member White’s amendment. It was close. Because the PC had turned down the original recommendation of Council, 75% per cent of members or 10 Council votes were needed to approve it. The votes were there with Council members Seekings and Moody opposed. Council member Wilson was absent.

Because the PC was silent on the FIL, a supermajority vote was not necessary. The $5.40 per sq.ft. was passed with Council members Moody, Seekings and Shahid opposed.

The amendment passed last night also referred to applications in process at the beginning of the year. They would be entitled to provide 15% WF housing in a project and a 25 year term. They could also opt for a FIL that would be $3.40 a sq.ft.