Advocacy Alerts

Laurel Island PUD to be Heard by City Council

preservation-admin , September 17, 2020

LAUREL ISLAND OVERVIEW

Once occupied by a City landfill, Laurel Island is a 196-acre site on the Cooper River, just north of downtown Charleston, currently seeking rezoning to Planned Unit Development (PUD). The proposal calls for a high-density, mixed-use development of the site, which will undoubtedly be one of the largest and most impactful projects in Charleston’s history.

The rezoning request was originally scheduled to come before the Planning Commission in March, 2020, but was postponed when public meetings were canceled in response to COVID-19. Once public meetings resumed virtually, the project was presented for “information only” review at the July 15 Planning Commission meeting, and was formally heard on August 19, at which time the Planning Commission recommended approval with conditions. The Laurel Island PUD is now up for Public Hearing at City Council on Tuesday September 22, 2020. The Planning Commission included the following conditions as part of their recommendation for approval:

  1. Workforce housing: 20% of all housing will be workforce housing, with 10% of all permitted units being permanently affordable and 10% of all permitted units being affordable for 10 years.  Upon permitting for 1,278 residential units, the PUD will have achieved 20% of those units as affordable units.  Upon permitting for 2,556 units, the PUD will have achieved 20% of those units as affordable units.  
  2. Mix of uses: At 50% of residential units permitted, 10% of the retail square footage and 10% of the office square footage will have been constructed, assuming road connections have been completed allowing this level of square footage.
  3. Usable Open Space: The development will have 39.2 acres of usable, publicly accessible open space.  The only change to this figure would be due to acts of God or federal or state regulatory changes
  4. Public Access: There will be no gates on any of the streets in the development

PUBLIC COMMENT INSTRUCTIONS

The City Council meeting will take place on Tuesday, September 22 at 5:00pm via conference call and livestreamed on the City’s Youtube channel. To review the agenda, click here, and to review the PUD document, click here.

All comments and requests to speak must be submitted by 12:00PM on Tuesday, September 22:

  • Sign-up to speak during the meeting or submit written comments by completing the form at http://innovate.charleston-sc.gov/comments/. If you are signed up to speak, the Clerk of Council will identify you by phone number.
  • Request to speak or leave a comment via voice mail at 843-579-6313. Be sure to provide your name and telephone number.
  • To access the meeting via phone, dial 1-929-205-6099, and when prompted enter the Access Code: 912096416. 
  • View the meeting on Youtube here.

PSC CONCERNS

The Preservation Society is not opposed to the development of this site, and we feel that the plan is moving in the right direction.  However, we continue to have significant concerns with the PUD as it does not include an adequate land use plan, and requests that the City cede unprecedented zoning authority to the developer.  As proposed the developer of Laurel Island can drastically alter, or rezone, the uses without City Council approval. We urge you to scrutinize the language of the PUD as it remains vague and open ended.  Most significantly, we are concerned about the potential impacts on the livability of the surrounding neighborhoods, the lack of meaningful community engagement, and roadblocks to public participation. We urge you to pause this project and address these issues before irrevocably handing over a blank check to the applicant to determine the future of Laurel Island. We ask that you carefully study the following aspects of the plan.

Conceptual Land Use Plan and Predictability
Sec. 54-22 (c(4)) of the Zoning 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.” The law requires that the developers of Laurel Island provide a land use plan as an integral part of the PUD. While we understand the desire for flexibility, 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 does not allow the community a clear understanding of what Laurel Island will be. While the PUD calls for the plan to contain: 276,500sf of retail 2,200,000 sf of office and 4,260 dwelling units, the PUD only requires a minimum of 10% retail and office. Further, the flexibility of the ITE conversation matrix (Appendix B), allows for significant deviation from the intended use densities.  Basically, the PUD is open ended and does not contain a land use plan that meets the law’s requirements. As a result, the proposed PUD does not meet the requirements of the ordinance, nor the standards of the City.

Workforce Housing
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. The PSC commends the commitment to providing workforce housing in perpetuity, as well as the Planning Commission’s recommendation for a delayed start date for non-permanent workforce housing. However, we continue to feel a higher threshold is warranted and ask the timeline for non-permanent workforce housing be increased from 10 years to 25 years, as is the standard for workforce housing in MU-1/WH and MU-2/WH zoning districts. Additionally, the language under section 2.4 Workforce Housing of the PUD (p. 9) that reads “Nothing herein shall prevent or prohibit the relocation, replacement, or reduction (of the overall percentage) of Workforce Housing within the Laurel Island Site from time to time” should be omitted.

Design Review Process 
The proposed structure permitting an internal architectural review board to determine the form and design of such significantly scaled buildings is flawed. We are concerned the language of the PUD could be interpreted as providing the LIBAR with the authority to change key zoning regulations, such as uses, densities and parking with no need for City approval.  The PUD requests an unprecedented level of control to be ceded by the City to the developer. Specifically, language in section 3.2, p. 11 indicates the LIBAR may increase or decrease “densities or intensities” of uses across the development, and section 4.1, p. 13, permits the LIBAR to adjust “height district locations” based on future rights-of-way, and we ask that this language be refined to ensure density and height cannot be altered by the LIBAR. We also believe that not establishing minimum or maximum parking standards on Laurel Island is unsound and should be studied in detail prior to approval of the PUD. 

Green Space
The Preservation Society supports the Planning Commission’s recommended condition to require the PUD to commit to a minimum of 39.2 acres of usable, publicly accessible open space. For a development of this size, its success will be predicated on the provision of significant green space, which must be explicitly committed to in the PUD. To clarify this threshold, the reference to minimum ordinance open space requirements (9.8 acres) should be removed from the Total Usable Open Space Area table on p. 15. 

Traffic Impacts
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. In accordance with numerous public comments submitted for Planning Commission review in August, 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 began meeting virtually with nearby neighborhoods following the information-only July 15 Planning Commission meeting, a mere several weeks of outreach so close to the official Planning Commission review in August was inevitably rushed and insufficient, especially during a time when in-person engagement is so challenging.  Below is an excerpt from our separate memo, submitted to the Mayor and Council via email on Tuesday, September 15, regarding public participation issues at the August 19 Planning Commission meeting:

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 the opportunity to be heard.  The Commission ultimately decided that a City staff member would quickly summarize each comment in a hurried and occasionally inaudible manner. This decision greatly hindered public participation and was far from the level of strong engagement that an in-person process would have allowed. 

This was a breach of process established for public hearings by the City of Charleston Code (Appendix E – Article VI. Planning Commission, Sec. 23-88. Powers and Duties, Appendix F – Rules of Procedure Planning Commission City of Charleston, Article III – Public Hearings, Section 2. – Procedure) that provides for comment by the public at public hearings before the Commission.  The rule allows members of the public to speak for up to five minutes. There is no provision for eliminating or limiting that level of participation, even under an Emergency Ordinance and even during a pandemic. 

In August, we implored the Planning Commission to require the applicant 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, a request that we now present to Council as well. Zoom is simply not effective at meaningfully informing and engaging residents on a project of this magnitude and complexity, and the community clearly has questions and reservations about the proposed PUD. 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 maintain the integrity of the planning process and ensure that Laurel Island is an equitable and successful development that benefits the residents of Charleston, we respectfully ask that City Council send this matter back to the Planning Commission to allow the community to participate in the public hearing as provided by law.

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