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The Advocate: The BAR: This time, we cannot fail it

By Jay Williams, Jr.

Here we go again.

A well-heeled developer wants to build a large 318-unit, eight-story apartment building at 295 Calhoun St. in Harleston Village that the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) denied. Twice. Unanimously.

“When viewed from most angles, the proposed building appears to have a square footprint with long facades extending in two directions. That gives the building a blocky perception …” the BAR staff wrote in opposition to the revised application in August. “To mitigate the massing, some relief or modulation is needed.”

Although the BAR acknowledged that the developer had addressed “some of the items of concern” following the denial in April, it also noted, “they have not fully addressed the concern of height, scale and mass.”

The Preservation Society’s director of Historic Preservation, Erin Minnigan, characterized the application as “fundamentally at odds with Charleston’s unique character. For the site, it’s overly massive, and it’s very much out of scale with the surrounding context, particularly the adjacent Harleston Village Neighborhood.”

The property, on the mostly residential side of Calhoun Street across from Roper St. Francis and adjacent to the Alberta Sottile Long Lake, fronts on a prominent gateway to the city, Harleston Village, and the historic district.

Does that sound familiar?

No? Then this may jog your memory:

SE Calhoun, LLC, an affiliate of Southeastern (the Augusta developer that bought the 2.2-acre property for $12 million in June 2020), has appealed the BAR denial in Circuit Court and requested pre-litigation mediation, “in the hope of getting a quick resolution beneficial to the owners and to the city.”

Rather than continue to work with the BAR, the developer is asking us to believe that “pre-litigation mediation” is “beneficial” for the city?

The developer “has complied with all zoning requirements in their presentations to the BAR,” SE Calhoun’s attorney wrote in an email. “After the first presentation, the owners modified the exterior design to reflect all of the comments from city staff and BAR members. The BAR then denied the application for reasons other than the exterior design.”

But actually, conceptual approval was denied, “with Applicant’s Reconsideration of H/S/M (height, scale, mass) and General Architecture Direction.” Properly, I think.

Though we might appreciate a developer’s desire to maximize a proposed building’s footprint in as many directions as possible, we should expect that any developer entering the Charleston market would be especially sensitive to Charleston’s rich architectural history, its distinctive human scale attractiveness, and the importance — at such a prominent site — of blending any new construction with the surrounding built environment consisting largely of two- and three-story homes and structures. This application is not for a site on Morrison Drive.

Charleston is changing. That’s fine, in certain places and in certain ways. But for a city with more than 350 years of history that attracts some seven million visitors annually to see it, caution, contemplation and cooperation — not speed — are warranted. Not all proposed changes are positive.

Somehow, someone at the City Paper counts all the building cranes in Charleston weekly. The last count: 21. That’s a lot of big changes.

All those building permits, along with hundreds more, had to pass through the BAR, which along with the Preservation Society and the Historic Charleston Foundation, is our first and last line of defense against unbridled and inappropriate development. Everyone, including developers, should want to defend the BAR to preserve our history, uniqueness and character, and their own property investments, lest we become another Myrtle Beach.

Lawsuits are not the answer.

Fortunately, the city made significant changes to the BAR ordinance after the Beach Company challenged it in court in 2016, by further delineating specific criteria the board will use to evaluate new construction and adopting a set of design principles to guide every applicant. These, among other changes, make the BAR’s process more legally enforceable. But the mayor and the city must mount a strong legal defense as needed. The stakes are too high.

The Preservation Society and the Historic Charleston Foundation filed motions to join the mediation between SE Calhoun, the developer of 295 Calhoun Street and the city of Charleston. The developer has objected to their participation.

Circuit Court Judge Roger Young should allow those motions to prevail, as these knowledgeable and dedicated organizations represent many of us here in Charleston, hold preservation easements on many properties and have both demonstrated a “substantial interest” in the outcome, the criteria established in state law. We need their knowledge and expertise at the mediation table, as citizens can’t attend these meetings — another reason that the city’s longstanding BAR process should not be bypassed by wealthy developers wielding expensive attorneys.

There are better ways to act.

There are excellent examples of buildings, gems large and small, that have been designed to be sensitive to the city and respectful of the specific neighborhoods and streets.

One illustration is Michael Bennett’s plan for a mixed-use complex at 82 Mary St., the site of the former Hughes Lumber Company. Previously approved for a nine-story office building, new owner Bennett Hospitality is proposing a more fitting design for a 50-room hotel with 78 apartments and first floor retail. Only four stories will face the street, and one elevation will feature piazzas. Quality, compatible design that benefits everyone can be accomplished.

“That’s why the city really needs to support the decisions of the BAR when their denials are litigated by developers,” Winslow Hastie, president and CEO of Historic Charleston, wrote recently.

“‘Pre-litigation mediation’ is the new term of art for how the private sector can steamroll a formal decision of the BAR that they don’t like.”

Hastie’s solution: “City leadership and its legal department need to hold the line and ensure that inappropriate development does not completely overwhelm the more sensitive zones of our historic district — including the site at 295 Calhoun Street.”

Hastie adds that the city must provide funds to bolster the BAR staff to handle the ever-growing number of applications and address “the explosion of violations proliferating across many neighborhoods.” The Dewberry Hotel’s unauthorized “Citrus Club” is merely one high-profile example.

Since 1931, the BAR has helped protect Charleston. Now it’s under pressure from wealthy developers on one side and a dearth of funding and staff on the other. We will soon learn about the city’s resolve to strengthen and defend it.

If the mayor and city council fall short in their commitment to the BAR in the 295 Calhoun St. matter, Charleston will suffer grievously. And so will we all.

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.


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