Since 1950, the 15-story Sergeant Jasper apartment building, surrounded by an asphalt parking lot, has served as one of the visual "gateways" to downtown Charleston, albeit an unattractive one. That's about to change.

The Beach Company has given notice to the building's tenants. It will be torn down.

The question is what will go in its place at the Lockwood Boulevard end of Broad Street.

The debate could well boil down to size.

The developers have begun introducing some conceptual designs to neighborhood groups. They involve apartment buildings that are four stories tall along the sidewalks (three stories of apartments and retail at ground level) stepping up to seven stories in the interior of the property (three stories of residential units above four stories of parking).

Across Barre Street, the plan is to build a four-story office building. The ground floor would be parking.

Critics say the site of the Sergeant Jasper is not the place for such a dense development. It abuts a residential neighborhood and a city park. It would tower over the residences in Harleston Village and nearby Colonial Lake and the Horse Lot. And it would significantly change the city's skyline.

But the Beach Company is in a position of strength. Existing zoning for the property has no height limit. The company's idea is to build only 90 feet up. The current building is 150 feet.

Members at a standing-room-only Charlestowne Neighborhood Association meeting Monday seemed, at best, luke- warm to the plans. They were concerned about the building footprint growing from 18,000 square feet to 160,000 square feet. They murmured at the estimated 250 to 300 apartments. They wanted more information about how traffic would be affected. And the plan for 1.5 parking spaces per unit seemed to strike them as insufficient.

One member said afterward that, while suggested design elements like elevated stoops, a pitched roof line, and iron work were appealing, the size and scope were way out of place.

During the meeting, Robert Gurley of the Preservation Society of Charleston was asked to respond to the conceptual plans. He said the primary role of that site should be to "blend back to a residential neighborhood," not to be a dense, urban site.

He also said the office building is an inappropriate use of property in that mostly residential area.

Mr. Gurley said he looked forward to a detailed traffic study and noted that some of the area being referred to as park space is actually just a wider sidewalk with trees on both sides.

Fortunately, the process is still young. The Beach Company intends to talk to more neighbors, gather ideas and incorporate them into a detailed plan. There is time for the public to speak up.

Indeed, an earlier plan for the site pitched by the Beach Company was ditched after neighbors expressed dissatisfaction with it.

What happens at that site should be of interest to people beyond those who live nearby. It is what people see when they drive into an important residential area of historic downtown Charleston. It warrants the best design and a scale that complements its surroundings.