When Charleston's new aquarium opened almost a decade ago, it promised to help rejuvenate eastern Calhoun Street from Marion Square to the waterfront.
Today, however, that transformation appears on hold.
The eastern end of Calhoun has seen a few new large office buildings and a condo project, but it remains a hodge podge of large new construction, smaller historic buildings and surface parking lots.
Now, the city is seeking to revive the street's fortunes through a special plan for the Calhoun Street-East Waterfront area. It spent about $300,000 to hire CKS Architecture and Urban Design and four other consultants to take an in-depth look at the area's zoning, public places, traffic and marketing.
The new plan was to serve as an update to the city's 2-decade-old Calhoun Corridor Study, but when a draft plan went before the city's Planning Commission recently, there were concerns that it might lead to too much hotel development and, possibly worse, a set of architectural guidelines that would lead to a blander city and less public input.
The plan's supporters say that's not the case, and that there are many more steps to go — and more opportunity for changes — before any of its recommendations take effect.
The first of those steps is expected July 15, when the commission takes a fresh look.
Cynthia Jenkins, director of the Preservation Society, said it's laudable that the city is looking at this area, but she is concerned about its recommendation to expand the area where new hotels would be allowed, specifically to the
Fountain Walk property next to the South Carolina Aquarium and to the shopping center site at the northwestern corner of Calhoun and East Bay streets.
The developer of the Fountain Walk complex at Aquarium Wharf has applied for a zoning change that would allow the property to be used for a hotel.
John Rivers of Rivers Enterprises, which owns both sites, already has sought hotel zoning for Fountain Walk. A block away, at Concord and Calhoun streets, a hotel is planned as part of the Concord Park project.
Yvonne Fortenberry, director of the city's division of design, development and preservation, said there was no opposition to expanding the hotel zoning at public meetings, adding, "It would be another important way to activate this area. It shouldn't just be office development."
Will Evans, an architect who often works for Rivers, said the one-story shopping center at East Bay and Calhoun, combined with the former Luden's building, would make a good hotel site. "A quality hotel or a quality hotel-condo would be a very good thing there," he said.
But Jenkins and Preservation Society Assistant Director Robert Gurley said they are equally, if not more, concerned about the plan's call for "form-based zoning," which specifies certain design elements for new construction.
"Form-based coding doesn't reinforce the historic context but creates a competing, phony context," Gurley said. "I think the BAR (Board of Architectural Review) is going to feel like a potted plant."
Fortenberry said the city already has height limits and guidelines for how close to the street a new building should be built. These changes simply extend those sorts of guidelines to parking, doorways, floor heights and window placement. "It's really not prescribing anything," she said. "It's really to fine-tune the zoning we have and not take away from the BAR."
Evans, a former BAR chairman, said he doesn't think the board's authority will be diminished under form-based zoning. "I don't see that at all," he said.
Jenkins and Gurley said they also are concerned that the plan doesn't mention historic preservation, and they're leery about its call for branding the eastern Calhoun Street.
However, the area already is marketed as Aquarium Wharf, a name with no historical roots and one that implies it's an area for attractions only and a mixed neighborhood. Others have suggested that the name Gadsden's Wharf would be better.
Some preservationists are concerned that a new plan for the eastern Calhoun Street corridor doesn't emphasize preservation enough. They note these three old buildings on Washington Street, a block north of Calhoun, are particularly at risk.×
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