Preservation Society of Charleston

Current Preservation Issues

Visitor Accommodations on the Peninsula

One corollary to the ever-ascending Charleston brand is the steady influx of visitors coming to stay in the city and experience its culture, ambiance, cuisine, and natural beauty. As a result, there continues to be requests for new hotel accommodations. While a moderate uptick of hotel rooms is to be expected with Charleston’s rising popularity as a vacation destination, the Board of Zoning Appeals – Zoning (BZAZ) meeting on February 2, 2016 saw the approval of four hotels totaling 200 rooms, an unprecedented increase in such a short time.

In recent years, the community and the City of Charleston have become increasingly cognizant of the impacts of accommodations. In 2013, the City amended its Visitor Accommodations Study for the first time since being introduced in 1998, because of the tremendous growth of new hotel rooms on the Peninsula over the 15-year period. The 2013 amendment updated both the Accommodations Overlay Zone (AOZ) – areas of the Peninsula to which hotel construction is limited – and the Accommodations Test – a set of criteria which the BZAZ uses to determine whether a project is appropriate and compatible with surrounding neighborhoods. (Click here for a map of the current AOZ)

At the time of the 2013 amendment, there were 3,891 hotel rooms on the Peninsula with an anticipated 1,334 more coming from approved projects or projects in the approval process, bringing the total to 5,225. The number that the City projected was not too far off at the end of 2015, as the Post and Courier reported that 4,865 rooms were either built or under construction, and an additional 538 were either approved or in the approval process; this brings the current total to 5,403 (the majority of these are south of Calhoun Street, the most sensitive area of the Peninsula). One puzzling aspect of this matter is the lack of clarity regarding the actual room count, as well as where these rooms are distributed. Are they evenly spread throughout the AOZ or are they concentrated in any one area?

The biggest concern that the Society has with new hotel rooms is the distribution pattern and the proportionality of hotel rooms to residents. The Accommodations Test currently does not address these issues.  However, the concerns that result from these issues clearly came to the fore at the February 2 BZAZ meeting. The approval of four hotels totaling 200 rooms in one meeting is both unprecedented and surprising.  To make matters worse, three of the four hotels are within two blocks of each other, and two of the four are contiguous.

The approval of 200 rooms, barely a month into the new year, represents a drastic increase compared to the rate at which rooms were added from 2013 to 2015 (the average increase in number of rooms per month during this time was about 63). Although the February 2 BZAZ meeting may be an anomaly, we continue to hear considerable angst from the community regarding new hotels and their impacts.

Prior to the BZAZ meeting, the Preservation Society met with all of the developers of the respective hotel projects, and, objectively, each project on its own met the Accommodations Test; therein lies the issue. Projects may meet the Accommodations Test, but the outcomes seem to be at odds with test’s intent. Is the test asking the right questions? Should the Accommodations Overlay Zone be parsed to a greater level of detail within certain blocks? Moreover, is the City’s current approach to accommodations able to keep up with current and unforeseen market demand? The Society posed these questions at the meeting, knowing that the board would have to judge each project separately and by the letter of the ordinance.

The 2015 Update to the Tourism Management Plan called on the City to address mounting concerns over visitor accommodations, yet this has not happened. Despite adjustments to the accommodations review as recent as 2013, the dramatic increase in the rate of hotel approvals warrants another critical look at the zoning ordinance. Charleston deserves a fresh assessment of its handling of accommodations so that the City can better balance the needs of the market and concerns for the community. We need to take inventory of current and proposed hotel rooms and perform a thorough analysis of their cumulative impacts on the neighborhoods. With this in hand, we can examine if the Accommodation Overlay Zone remains optimal and if the Accommodations Test is asking the right questions.

By Tim Condo, Manager of Preservation Initiatives

Treatment of Flood-Damaged Older and Historic Buildings

The historic rainfall and flooding in the first few days of October have greatly impacted many in the community and beyond. We sincerely hope you and your family have weathered the storm without damage to your house or place of business. However, if your property has sustained damage, or if you have questions or concerns about how to properly care for your affected property, please contact us by phone - 843.722.4630 - or by email - tcondo@preservationsociety.org.  

In addition, we would like to share a resource with you in response to this week’s flooding. Please refer to "Treatment of Flood-Damaged Older and Historic Properties" from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

By Tim Condo, Manager of Preservation Initiatives

Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act

Over the past few years there has been no shortage of media coverage of the State Ports Authority’s (SPA) proposed expansion of Union Pier Terminal and its cruise operations, as well as the resultant litigation. Followers of the issue have undoubtedly come across the term “Section 106 Review” in the ongoing narrative, but what is it exactly? Understanding this process is especially relevant now, as the SPA has filed with the Charleston District Army Corps of Engineers for the necessary permit to expand its cruise terminal, and the early stages of Section 106 Review have begun. 

Though it is an arcane process, Section 106 Review is a crucial defense mechanism for the nation’s historic and cultural resources, because it requires consideration of the effects of projects that federal agencies carry out, approve, or fund on historic properties. In this sense, “historic properties” are those that are deemed eligible for the NRHP or listed on the NRHP individually or as part of a district. However, Section 106 Review is a more complicated process than just that.

Fortunately, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) recently updated its publication, Protecting Historic Properties: A Citizen’s Guide to Section 106  Review, which offers a wealth of information in clear terms.  We encourage all who are interested in better understanding a process important to the preservation of Charleston’s architectural heritage to become familiar with the publication by clicking here.

(Image courtesy of LS3P via charlestonbusiness.com) 

By Tim Condo, Manager of Preservation Initiatives

Section 54-206(a) of the Charleston Zoning Ordinance

Municipal zoning codes are generally ponderous documents. The legalese and technical jargon can be overwhelming, but having even a basic familiarity with zoning ordinances is critical to understanding how and why a city takes its physical form. PSC is here to help make sense of the Charleston Zoning Ordinance for you.

Section 54-206 of the Charleston Zoning Ordinance lists particular uses that may be allowed in certain zoning districts by the granting of a special exception from the Board of Zoning Appeals – Zoning (BZAZ). The board may grant the special exception if it finds that certain requirements are met. Of specific interest under Sec. 54-206 is subsection “a,” which is a special exception use allowing additional dwelling units in the various SR (single-family residential) zoning districts. It states: “Additional dwelling units shall be permitted as an exception within all single-family residential, SR zoning districts, in dwellings constructed prior to August 17, 1966, where the Board (BZAZ), after review, finds that such existing dwelling contains such an amount of space available and suitable for residential purposes that it is unreasonable to require its use as a single-family dwelling.”

This special exception is problematic because if the single-family dwelling in question is one of the scores of historic residences that make up Charleston’s largest and most exceptional architecture, granting Sec. 54-206(a) becomes potentially deleterious to the character of those dwellings and the National Historic Landmark District as a whole. It is extremely difficult to add dwelling units within an historic single-family house and not diminish its integrity; far too often character-defining features of the historical fabric, such as interior staircases and original floor plans and ornamentation, are altered or demolished.

A corollary issue with Sec. 54-206(a) is its prescriptive language and, therefore, how it is applied. The board is required to grant the special exception in practically every case because of the verbiage: “Additional dwelling units shall be permitted…where the board, after review, finds that such existing dwelling contains such an amount of space available and suitable for residential purposes that it is unreasonable to require its use as a single-family dwelling.” Essentially, in cases with houses that have substantial square footages, the board must grant the owner the right to have additional dwelling units.

Sec. 54-206(a) was written at a time when the real estate market was less able to support single-family use, and the preservation ethic recognized and practiced today was still inchoate. There was less demand for single-family dwellings with large square footages, and the stately historic houses in primarily residential neighborhoods needed inhabitants to maintain them. If giving a dwelling a purpose, thereby preserving it, meant splitting it into apartments or multiple ownerships, then so be it. Today, best practices in preservation would most often be to avoid such a route, and examples of grand residences occupied by just one family abound in Charleston’s historic districts.

When the BZAZ voted in June of 2015 to grant a special exception for additional dwelling units for 1 Meeting Street, one of the finest and most substantial dwellings in the city, it struck a nerve with preservationists as setting a dubious precedent. In the Charlestowne neighborhood alone, the area south of Broad Street, there are dozens of houses of comparable sizes to 1 Meeting Street. If all of these owners were to seek special exceptions for additional dwelling units, then a significant portion of the city’s historic residential architecture undoubtedly would be compromised. Once historic fabric is gone, it is gone forever. Elements can be reconstructed, but they are typically done so with inferior materials and at an unnecessary expense to subsequent owners.

A property that can be subdivided or rented as multiple units is likely to fetch a higher asking price with the added income potential. Because of this, and as long as the language in 54-206(a) remains as is, homeowners may tend to give themselves and their properties an edge and capitalize in a competitive seller’s market by adding dwelling units. The maxim, “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” is quite fitting in this situation. If the thought of partitioning and subdividing Charleston’s exceptional historic dwellings causes concern, talk to your City Council representative about a much-needed amendment to the troublesome language in 54-206(a).  

By Tim Condo, Manager of Preservation Initiatives

Image: 1 Meeting Street

 

Sergeant Jasper

The timeline of the redevelopment of the Sergeant Jasper parcel is convoluted and lengthy. Unless you have been tracking it diligently, it would be easy not to have the complete picture of what has happened. For your convenience, here are the highlights:  

April 2013: The Beach Company began to seek public input for the redevelopment of its property at 310 and 322 Broad Street, also known as the Sergeant Jasper. Because of the scale and intensity of the development, early plans were met with concern by the community.

Several months passed while the Beach Company received input on the project.

September 2014: The BAR gave the Beach Company approval to demolish the existing Sergeant Jasper building. Interior demolition began the following month, but further progress has since halted and the building still stands.

February 2015: At the February 18 meeting of the Planning Commission, the Beach Company sought approval to rezone the Sergeant Jasper property into a Planned Unit Development (PUD). PSC opposed the PUD because of the many negative impacts it would have had on traffic, congestion, and parking in the area. The massive scale of what was proposed – 454 units, 700 parking spaces, and a 35,000 square foot grocery store – was incompatible with the surrounding historic residential neighborhoods. It appeared that the PUD did not reflect much of the previous months of community input with regard to desired scale and impact of the project.

An overwhelming turnout of concerned citizens prompted the Planning Commission hearing to be deferred to a special meeting on a later date. Before that hearing occurred, however, the Beach Company withdrew their plans for the PUD amidst widespread opposition and went back to the drawing board.

May 2015: At a special meeting of the BAR at Burke High School Auditorium, the Beach Company presented their new vision for the Sergeant Jasper redevelopment. This time, rather than seeking to rezone the property into a PUD, it based its design on the property’s existing 3X height district, an outmoded zoning designation allowing heights and setbacks incongruous with the adjacent historic neighborhoods. The result was an 18-story residential tower, retail shops wrapping a parking garage, and a large office building. PSC opposed this design because it was discordant with its surroundings by every objective measure. The BAR deferred the project on its height, scale, and mass, specifically as it referred to the tower.

June 2015: The June 3 meeting of the BAR took place at the Charleston Museum, where the Beach Company returned to unveil a slightly modified proposal. The tower was truncated to 13 stories, but the volume lost in height was added in mass to parts of the other buildings. After hearing lengthy testimony from scores of opposed citizens in front of a packed auditorium, The BAR, in a 3-to-2 decision, voted to deny the plan, citing its being out of keeping with the height, scale, and mass of the surrounding historic district.

July 2015: In response to the BAR’s decision, the Beach Company filed an appeal in circuit court, requesting pre-litigation mediation with the BAR and the City of Charleston. This little-known and seldom-used path of mediation allowed the Beach Company to negotiate directly with the City in a protected and confidential setting without public oversight and input. 

The Preservation Society of Charleston (PSC) and Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF) filed a joint Motion to Intervene in the mediation in an attempt to ensure that the public’s voice would not be excluded from the discussion. The neighborhood associations of Charlestowne (CNA) and Harleston Village (HVNA) did the same.

August 2015: PSC, HCF, CNA, and HVNA were granted the right to send representatives to the mediation. Mediation occurred over two weeks, with all parties sworn to confidentiality.

September 2015: On September 1, Tom Traxler, the mediator for the Sergeant Jasper BAR appeal, declared that the mediation was at an impasse because the parties were not able to reach a resolution. Following this, the Beach Company announced that it would continue to pursue its case in court, stating that the BAR exceeded its authority and violated its rights as an owner by denying the project. The City has publicized its intent to “defend vigorously” the decision and integrity of the BAR.

October 2015: The Beach Company released to the media a statement and a loose site plan showing how they would, if unsuccessful in their appeal of the BAR’s denial of their latest proposal, renovate the existing Sgt. Jasper tower and construct a 5-story parking garage and a 6-story commercial building with office and retail. These plans were not shared or discussed with the preservation community or the neighborhoods. 

While the plans presented to the BAR on June 3 directed focus primarily to the tower, much of the concern voiced by the Preservation Society was related to the incongruous mass and scale of the parking garage and 6-story office building. The BAR rightly rejected that plan. Without seeing anything more than a conceptual site plan, PSC was unable speak to how this plan addresses those concerns.

November 2015: Circuit court Judge J.C. Nicholson issued a consent order affirming full legal standing for PSC and HCF. PSC and HCF officially joined the lawsuit between the City of Charleston and the Beach Company over the Board of Architectural Review’s June 13 decision to deny the Beach Company’s latest proposal to redevelop the Sergeant Jasper site.

At the November 24 City Council meeting, Mayor Riley made a motion for City staff to hold a meeting with the Beach Company, PSC, HCF, and the neighborhood associations to reach a compromise on the redevelopment of the Sergeant Jasper property. The Mayor stated that the original, lower height redevelopment scheme should be revisited but significantly scaled down. He further moved that if the parties could not arrive at a compromise, City planning staff would study changing the property’s zoning.

December 2015: As a result of Mayor Riley’s council-approved motion, members of City staff convened a meeting with the Beach Company, PSC, HCF, and the neighborhood associations. City staff facilitated a discussion to hold a constructive dialogue about the site’s future development.

January 2016: The City hosted four more meetings over the course of the month with the Beach Company, PSC, HCF, the neighborhood associations, and City staff. Despite the discussions to develop a compromise plan, the Beach Company submitted an application to the BAR for conceptual approval of a new, alternate plan which called for the retention of the 225 residential units of the existing tower and the construction of an additional 93,000 sq. ft. of commercial space, 53,000 sq. ft. of retail space, and a 490-space parking garage. Scheduled to be heard on January 27, the matter was deferred so that zoning issues raised in an appeal by Charlestowne Neighborhood Association could be heard by the Board of Zoning Adjustments-Zoning (BZAZ) prior to its review by the BAR. 

​By Tim Condo, Manager of Preservation Initiatives