In its 90th Year, Charleston’s Board of Architectural Review Encounters New Challenges
preservation-admin , October 13, 2021
Map of the original boundaries of the Old and Historic District, established 1931. Since then, the district and purview of the BAR has expanded to cover the majority of historic resources on the Charleston peninsula.
By Erin Minnigan and Brian Turner
On October 13, 1931 Charleston City Council adopted the landmark ordinance that created the Board of Architectural Review (BAR). For the last 90 years the BAR has been charged with safeguarding the integrity and character of Charleston’s historic districts. It has a particularly unique and important legacy as the first government body of its kind in the United States. When created in 1931, no city had passed legislation to regulate property on the basis of historic value. Subsequently, the BAR laid the foundation for hundreds, if not thousands, of comparable ordinances in effect throughout America today. The Preservation Society (PSC) was instrumental in persuading the City to adopt the 1931 Ordinance, and today continues to stand up in defense of the BAR and integrity of the design review process.
Over time the Board’s authority has gained considerable strength. Changes starting in 1959 have expanded areas of the City under the Board’s protection, added professional staff, and given it more authority over demolitions, alterations, and new construction. It has transitioned its emphasis from a purely building by building approach to place more focus on maintaining the sense of place felt in Charleston’s neighborhoods.
In 2017, the City of Charleston amended the BAR ordinance in response to Circuit Court Judge J.C. Nicholson’s decision in a case challenging the BAR’s denial of the redevelopment of the Sergeant Jasper site. The court held that, while the ordinance is not unconstitutionally vague, it is “silent as to the standards the BAR used” in denying the design of the proposed building.
The City’s responsive action was significant, adding specific elements by which new construction projects are considered for appropriateness; (1) height; (2) scale; (3) mass; and (4) architectural direction. The City also adopted a set of design principles, which help guide the BAR’s review to ensure new construction is informed by and compatible with Charleston’s unique architectural character in regard to style, form, proportion and material. Finally, in 2017, the BAR was split into two review Boards to consider projects greater than and less than 10,000 square feet, respectively, and redesigned the height districts to be measured in stories.
Fundamentally, these revisions are intended to ensure fairness among proposals. Each applicant, no matter whether they have done work in Charleston in the past or not, can review the ordinance to understand the specific standards by which their projects will be reviewed. Also, the Board split added another important safeguard to ensure that projects are judged fairly, particularly for larger projects that benefit from an authoritative group familiar with large-scale new construction.
The Ordinance revisions, including the BAR Principles and Height Districts, are also intended to provide greater predictability for the size and quality of new buildings in the historic district, and in many ways have led to an improved BAR process. Yet, the push for bigger buildings continues unabated. The 2017 changes also granted applicants the ability to achieve additional height based on “architectural merit.”. Defined as “a project that reflects exemplary architectural and urban design, utilizes the highest level of materials and finishes and contributes to the public realm,” architectural merit has been a subject of debate and interpretation by the various parties involved in the process. For the majority of major new buildings proposed in recent years, developers have tried to utilize this provision to maximize their entitlements without providing the high standards the Board considers to be “exemplary.” Perhaps the foremost example of this is the recent proposal for 295 Calhoun Street, an eight-story mixed-use building twice denied by the BAR-L in April and August of this year.
The out-of-town project team put forth a design that was overly massive for the site, out of scale with the adjacent historic context, and unrelated to Charleston’s unique character, yet included a request for an additional floor based on architectural merit. After being turned down by the BAR-L most recently, the owner decided to sue the City to appeal the Board’s decision, rather than committing to redesigning the building to be more compatible with the site and context. We are encouraged that the City responded to the news of the lawsuit with an expression of strong confidence in the BAR. In a recent, City Paper article a spokesman for the Mayor commented, “we believe that the BAR is stronger today than it’s been in many years and that it will continue to protect our city for generations to come.”
While the PSC may not always agree with BAR decisions, its authority is fundamental to why Charleston continues to be one of the best-preserved and unique historic cities in the country. As Charleston becomes an increasingly desirable place to live and invest in, the BAR has come under tremendous pressure as development explodes across the peninsula. The PSC stands firmly behind the authority of the BAR and will be pressing the City to defend the Board’s ability to turn down inappropriate proposals, especially as the 295 Calhoun case progresses.