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