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City Council, February 26

HCF to appeal BZA decision on Meeting Street hotel
Affordable Housing issues
Marc Knapp

It was not on the agenda but should have been. It was the decision of the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) to approve a 252-room hotel at 431 Meeting Street. BZA members reportedly were not happy about the approval but thought they had no grounds to disapprove. The Historic Charleston Foundation thought other wise, and has lodged an appeal to the applause of many of us.

What makes the BZA decision very relevant to the City is that some years ago, the City sold the Meeting Street site to the Charleston School of Law for only $875,000. More recently, and after ebb in the school’s fortunes, the City agreed to waive its reverter clause and allow the School to keep 75% of any the sale proceeds. Understood was that the School’s share of the proceeds would go to procuring a new campus.

What the City did not anticipate was that the site would sell for a reported $12.5 million and the buyer would plan a 252-room hotel. And this would coincide with concern/alarm by the community that the proliferation of hotels on the Peninsula was damaging the fabric of the City. The planned hotel would abut others and considering the size, could be particularly damaging, at least to that part of Meeting Street.

Mayor Tecklenberg has attempted to rein in hotel growth. He has support on Council but not enough to advance his plan. On August 21, 2018, City Council was presented with amendments to the existing Accommodations Overlay ordinance which eliminated the special exception language which applies to the area of downtown in which this hotel is being proposed. That action was deferred by City Council, yet remains on the current City Council agenda. "Since this zoning ordinance is still operating under a 'pending ordinance doctrine,' the BZA-Z is not permitted to grant a special exception for more than 50 rooms under this specific code section," according to Winslow Hastie Executive Director of HCF. HCF Letter to members.

We have no opinion on the likely success of the HCF’s appeal but hope that it is successful. A 50-room hotel on the site would be better than 252 rooms. But of course, if the developer cannot build 252 rooms, it may not be prepared to pay $12.5 million for the site. And we also think that considering the City’s benevolence, the School should consider the opposition to the large hotel and look for another buyer with a more modest and benign objective. Mayor Tecklenberg needs to do some arm-twisting.
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Amendments to the City ordinance to facilitate the construction of Affordable Housing (AH) took up much of last night’s meeting. Very simply, the amendments reduced lot dimensions, areas and buffers, and theoretically at least, more AH could be constructed within the City on Residential zoned sites. The Planning Commission was not happy with the amendments and voted it down. Despite the fact that the amendments were up for the third reading, Council too voted the amendments down. But looked to staff to come up with a revision.

It was a strange discussion. The amendments would indeed facilitate construction by make building lots cheaper to acquire or develop from larger lots. But even so, would it be feasible still to construct AH? The Mayor and others expressed doubt. Staff repeated that the amendments would not affect in any way the creation or development of market rate housing. Staff told Council that the amendments would make it easier for AH developers as, with the proposed amendments, they could proceed without the obligation to go before the BZA for variances and exceptions. Press Download file to see proposed changes

There were about 9 citizens who spoke against the amendments and they more than anything else seemed to sway Council. They were all from the Ashleyville- Maryville area, an old established African American community. They complained that the changes would upset the look and nature of the community. Council member Lewis noted that when the community annexed into the City, it was promised that there would be no zoning changes.

Council member Waring, a very vocal proponent of AH was not happy about voting down the amendments and proposed that amendments should come back in some way, such as an overlay, to exclude the Ashleyville Merryville community. Council unanimously agreed. The changed amendments will need to go before the Planning Commission again before they come back to Council for final readings.

Nobody seemed concerned that only one area was singled out for exception from the proposed ordinance amendments. If Ashley Merryville could be excluded, why not others?
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The funds from the County’s last half-cent sales tax are now flowing. The accumulation of funds for greenbelts is so far modest. But the City is planning to immediately claim and immodest amount.

Last night Council agreed to request $6.1 million of greenbelt funds to purchase 8.5 acres on James Island on which is situated Fort Pemberton. It has also requested $600,000 from the state Infrastructure Bank and the Mayor told Council that $400,00 had been approved to supplement the request to the County.

The City also agreed to request $300,000 from the County to contribute to the purchase of Brantley Park on James Island. The Town of James Island and the City plan to purchase the park jointly

The last half-cent sales tax will raise about $210 million for greenbelts over a 25-year life. Urban allocations will amount to about $105 million of which the City of Charleston’s share will be about 37.5 % or roughly $39 million. But considering the 25-vear life of the sales tax, this amount is not immediately available. Presently only $8 million is available and is to be shared by all of the cities and municipalities of the County. The City’s share of the accumulated amount is only about $3 million.
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I continue to be amazed at the poor budgeting and control of the Spring – Fishburne Drainage project. The potential shortfall of funding is probably about $4o million and I’d like to know who is accountable.

I have undertaken contracting work at the Intermodal Center in North Charleston. The errors in engineers’ drawings and design are alarming. My comment to the City is beware! All plans and drawings for big projects should be carefully scrutinized. The City ordinances require any change order request must come back to Council if it exceeds $40,000. Some one must have signed off on these extras or someone divided these items into many small small change orders. Either way, someone should be looking a jail time.