The Advocate: Have we reached a turning point?
By Jay Williams, Jr.
Has Charleston reached its moment? Are we finally ready to prioritize its richness, character — even greatness?
We’re celebrating two amazing events. The International African American Museum, a once distant, highly visionary dream of a former mayor, has opened to great acclaim.
And the powerful State Ports Authority withdrew its uber-dense, un-Charlestonian plans for the invaluable Union Pier waterfront site. Charlestonians came together, defended the essence of what Charleston is — and we won.
We proved that we want the best; that we don’t have to settle.
But we can’t stop here.
As many once-great American cities struggle or decline, how can Charleston maintain its status as a rare oasis among cities, attracting record numbers of tourists, residents, developers and money? We need to know how to properly contain these four elements fueling our golden age, as they are the same four that can easily overwhelm us.
Enter 155 Meeting Street.
The media and city officials were aflutter when it was rumored that Bill Gates and other investors had purchased the decrepit Days Inn on Meeting Street at Horlbeck Alley to build another … hotel? Yes, but this would be a wonderfully grand Four Seasons Hotel.
And it will be grand. It will consist of three buildings: The two smaller, architecturally different, and appropriately scaled three-story buildings facing Meeting Street are the highlights, then there’s a much larger building set back 100 feet from Meeting Street. To create a larger footprint for the project, the investors purchased additional land to the north and west creating a property that will measure some 220 feet on one side and 330 feet on the other.
The Four Seasons property will include condos separated from the hotel rooms, an interior parking garage, a high-ceiling lobby and gracious entrances, especially appealing from Meeting St. The Board of Architectural Review (BAR) praised the architecture and the high-quality building materials proposed, but it did suggest important changes. The application has been deferred twice.
So, what’s not to like?
Simple: It’s too bulky and too tall to fit in Charleston’s famed Historic District.
Charleston is renowned for its careful planning process as well as its rigorous architectural design and building requirements. Unfortunately, this reputation is stronger than reality, and sophisticated, moneyed developers know it.
Yet the zoning for this site is clear. Six stories are the maximum height allowed for buildings except …
When the applicants for the Four Seasons appeared before the Planning Commission, they asked to add an extra story. As president and CEO of Historic Charleston Foundation Winslow Hastie tells it, developers often say, “Well, this is an expensive and complicated project, and to make it ‘pencil out,’ we need an extra story.” It’s called “upzoning” and it’s way too common. This request was no exception.
From there, the applicant’s request headed to Charleston City Council. That seventh story was quickly approved. The only dissenting vote was cast by James Island Councilmember Caroline Parker. “My constituents ask me to preserve and protect what makes Charleston so special, and with some of the upzoning I’ve seen, we’re losing that charm,” she told “The Advocate.”
But now the Four Seasons wants an eighth story based on Charleston’s flawed experiment named “architectural merit.”
Erin Minnigan, director of Preservation and Planning for the Preservation Society told the BAR, “We fundamentally believe that an 8th floor is inappropriate for this location. The proposed building comes within 18 feet of the rear of historic buildings that line King Street and rises to more than double their height — it will be highly visible from multiple vantage points, towering over the small-scale streetscapes which would have detrimental impacts on the prevailing character of the historic district."
The applicant had already been granted a variance for its first-floor lobby — asking that it be 25 feet high, the equivalent of two stories. That would make that “eighth floor” closer to … nine stories? Additionally, a 17-foot-high glass conservatory is proposed up there.
Given the height, even at seven stories, Hastie points to a “need for sculpting that massing particularly at the upper levels to reduce the visual impacts on King Street because of the scale of the mostly two and three-story buildings on King.” Setbacks above five stories — crucial not only along narrow Horlbeck Alley, but elsewhere too — are essential to mitigating the mass.
Hastie notes that the loading docks, although set back, directly face Horlbeck Alley. “Look at the Charleston Place’s loading dock on Hasell Street; it’s awful, it’s nasty, it’s smelly, it’s garbage, it’s staff smoking cigarettes and hanging out — it doesn’t create a pleasant sidewalk or urban atmosphere.”
The trash at the Four Seasons won’t smell any better.
And with trucks loading on a more active Horlbeck Alley, pedestrians will be forced into the street since there’s no sidewalk on the other side. The applicant should internalize those back-of-house operations and move operations such as deliveries, laundry and trash inside the parking garage.
The applicant is well prepared; they’re attempting to maximize the amount of space they can build. The BAR members are knowledgeable, attentive, respectful and responsive.
The problem occurs when there’s too much wiggle room in the zoning regulations. Upzoning should be curtailed, especially in sensitive areas of the city. And we must address the failure of the “architectural merit” experiment.
It’s time to finish the Peninsula Plan, tighten the processes and require quality architecture from every applicant, all of which will relieve some pressure from our overworked boards, commissions and staff.
Developers always want more. Charleston is great because historically we have (except for recent dreadful exceptions) held them back. Now we find ourselves at a turning point: Do we act to protect what’s made Charleston livable and celebrated, or do we continue stumbling down the path to becoming Charlotte?
Jay Williams, Jr. arrived in Charleston in 2001 to escape the cold and relax in the warmth of a better culture and climate. This all worked well until May of 2011 when he attended a cruise terminal discussion at Physicians Hall.