Advocacy Update: Laurel Island PUD Approved
preservation-admin , August 20, 2020
Last night, in spite of resounding community concern and a multitude of unanswered questions, the Planning Commission unanimously recommended approval of the Laurel Island Planned Unit Development (PUD), ceding an unprecedented level of zoning control from the City to the developer. The Preservation Society had a strong presence, as Executive Director Kristopher King relayed the Society’s concerns echoed many times over by comments from the community. Many thanks to all of you who submitted comments and stood with us.
Preservation Society of Charleston’s Concerns, As Stated and Written to the Planning Commission
Vision and Justification of the PUD
We continue to ask how is this PUD is the best and only option for all of these parcels. Rezoning to MU, the predominant zoning in the area, would provide the structure needed to implement the intended uses and would also stipulate a 20% workforce housing requirement. Furthermore, the ordinance requires a PUD to provide evidence of compatibility with building patterns of adjacent developed neighborhoods and the zoning of adjacent undeveloped areas. The Laurel Island conceptual base plan shows block sizes much larger than nearby neighborhoods, and heights much taller than allowed by right in nearby zoning. In order for the case to be made for the rezoning of Laurel Island to a PUD, the points below must be more directly addressed.
Conceptual Land Use Plan and Predictability
Sec. 54-22 (c(4)) of the ordinance requires a PUD Master Plan to include a “Land use plan showing the location, approximate net acreage and gross acreage of each type of residential, mixed-use, office, commercial, and industrial development pod, open space area, recreational area and water body in the PUD, and existing land uses adjacent to the PUD.” It is imperative that a land use plan be provided to help frame the vision for the PUD. While we understand the desire for flexibility as the development is built out, this cannot come at the expense of predictability in the proposed uses and densities. Using trip generation as a mechanism to adjust uses based on market demand is too vague and is not conducive to clear community understanding of what Laurel Island will be. The proposed PUD does not meet the requirements of the ordinance or the standards of the City.
Laurel Island represents the single biggest opportunity we will have as a city to make a meaningful impact on the shortage of workforce housing in downtown Charleston. While we commend the commitment to providing workforce housing in perpetuity, 10% is in fact well below the standard for large projects. We ask that the permanent workforce housing requirement be increased to 20% of all housing on Laurel Island. In addition, to ensure that affordable housing is incorporated throughout the build-out process, we ask that the developer commit to providing no less than 10% workforce housing at any point during the development of Laurel Island, with no less than 20% upon completion. Given the time necessary to create the infrastructure to support development on Laurel Island and to engineer the solution to settlement, the 10 year “amortized” workforce housing seems unlikely to be able to be realized.
Design Review Process
The proposed structure permitting an internal architectural review board to determine the form and design of such significantly scaled buildings, and to independently adjust key zoning regulations, such as height districts and densities, is flawed. In our view, it would be more appropriate for Laurel Island design review to be handled by the Design Review Board or Board of Architectural Review, utilizing LI design guidelines recommended by the BAR and approved by the Planning Commission. As presented, the developer-run LIBAR could theoretically relocate the 12-story height district to be directly adjacent to the Charleston Cemeteries Historic District. We also believe that not having any parking requirements and deferring this control to the LIBAR is unsound. This is an unprecedented level of control being ceded by the City to the developer.
While the conceptual base map illustrates 20-23% of the total acreage as usable open space, the PUD document indicates that a minimum of 5% usable open space would be acceptable until the “completion” of the project. The “completion” will take many decades, if it ever happens at all, thus allowing the minimum to be realized. While we appreciate the intent to provide a higher percentage, which is much more appropriate for a development of this size, this must be explicitly committed to in the PUD. We also ask that the ability to reduce the usable open space by up to 10% be removed from the PUD. Without a higher minimum locked into the PUD, it is impossible to ensure any community benefit for the surrounding neighborhoods. The terms of the PUD should match the illustration of it. The 20-23% shown should be the minimum.
The Laurel Island PUD needs more clarity around the impacts on upper peninsula roadways and neighborhoods. Cool Blow Street, in particular, is too narrow for and incompatible with the proposed traffic plan. We are particularly concerned with how Laurel Island traffic will affect residents as well as the students of Meeting Street Academy, whose pick up/drop off area is on Cool Blow Street. The traffic plan calls for the addition of a left-hand turn only lane on Cool Blow Street at Meeting, but fails to acknowledge that there is insufficient ROW to accommodate this. There are many questionable aspects to the proposed traffic plan and further analysis needs to be conducted on neighborhood streets, especially highly utilized roads such as Huger Street.
Community Outreach Process
Finally, while the project team has met virtually with a few neighborhoods since the information-only July 15 Planning Commission meeting, outreach this close to the official Planning Commission review is inevitably rushed and insufficient, especially during a time when in-person engagement is so challenging. When this application first appeared on the December 2019 Planning Commission agenda we were stunned as there had been no community dialogue. We personally reached out to the applicant and urged him to engage the community and offered to help. Unfortunately that never happened and we now ask that you require the applicant and the City to pause and undertake a more comprehensive and deliberate effort to properly inform the community about the details of this project and obtain resident feedback. Zoom is simply not effective at meaningfully informing and engaging residents on a project of this magnitude and complexity. As a member of City Council for a neighboring district said, “Laurel Island is important but I honestly don’t think it’s what folks are focused on right now. Back to school, poor economy, crime uptick, loss of jobs, COVID. I’m not sure how to break through that”.
As the largest entitlement ever requested on the peninsula, Laurel Island presents an unprecedented opportunity to provide high quality public spaces and amenities and is a once-in- a-generation chance to address the city’s pressing need for affordable housing. To ensure that Laurel Island is an equitable and successful development that benefits the residents of Charleston, the Preservation Society of Charleston respectfully requests that the Planning Commission deny this application and require the applicant to address the issues outlined above. The Society urges that the Commission affirm and maintain the integrity of the planning process.
THE GOOD NEWS
The PUD was approved with several conditions to be considered by City Council, including provisions to ensure that retail and office are incorporated throughout the build-out of the development and a stipulation that the PUD commit to a higher level of usable open space. Further, responding to the concerns of both the Charleston Housing Department and the PSC, the Planning Commission strengthened the workforce housing conditions by requesting an extension of the time requirement for non-permanent units.
THE BAD NEWS
There were no substantive changes to the land use plan, which remains vague and non-specific, nor the proposed design review process, which requires only minimal City oversight and places power in the hands of the developer. There was no request for clarification of traffic impacts. Other than an already scheduled meeting with the East Central neighborhood next week — coming after the Planning Commission’s approval — no further community outreach was required.
For such a massive entitlement as Laurel Island, the importance of community voices being heard is paramount. Instead, shortcomings in the virtual meeting format effectively minimized the impact of those voices in at least two ways. First, yesterday morning, the Eastside and the East Central neighborhoods, who opposed the PUD approval because they have not been effectively engaged by the developer, were unable to submit their comments onto the City’s online comment page. The PSC worked with both neighborhoods to ensure that these comments reached City staff, and expressed concern to the Commission that other voices may also have not been heard.
Further, at the meeting itself, the reading of the comments submitted online was truncated because “some of them were rather long.” The Planning Commission came very close to dispatching with the reading of the comments altogether until it was pointed out that, were this an in-person meeting, everyone would have his or her say. The compromise entailed a City staff member quickly summarizing each comment. It was far from the level of strong engagement that an in-person process would have, and raises questions in our minds about the integrity of the process.
The PUD will now to go to City Council for a public hearing, likely in early September. The PSC will keep you updated on how you can make your voice heard as we continue to urge the developer and the City to address community concerns. Thank you to all who stood with us on this important project. Stay tuned.
If you missed it, view the PSC’s webinar on Laurel Island here, and read Executive Director Kristopher King’s Commentary on Laurel Island in the Post and Courier: Laurel Island is a big deal. What’s all the rush?