The crowd that spoke in opposition to Clemson's building plans for its architecture school lost their fight on Wednesday night. And in the process many also lost confidence in the way the Charleston Board of Architectural Review now handles such issues.
With good reason. The rules have changed - for the worse.
While a roomful of people thought they could argue their points and, possibly, convince the BAR to reject the plan, that wasn't the case. It turns out that when the BAR gave conceptual approval to plans way back in October of 2012, the process was all but finished.
Too bad the public didn't understand that.
And too bad for BAR members whose study of the Clemson building since that 2012 meeting was for nought.
For a building to get the go-ahead from the BAR, the applicant must go through three steps: conceptual approval, preliminary approval and final approval.
For most of the BAR's history, the first step was to consider the building's height, size and scale. The building's architecture was considered at the second stage.
Now, it seems, it is all decided at the first vote - except for refining details as prescribed by the BAR.
In essence, the second vote is perfunctory. By then, the BAR and its staff are left only to consider tweaks made by the architect. The general look of the building is no longer up for discussion.
BAR Chairman Bob DeMarco, who has served on the board for 10 years, has asked that the rules revert to what they used to be. He said that the period of time between conceptual approval and preliminary approval can be critical.
"I've changed my mind plenty of times during that time," he tells us. "I've heard what people have to say, have done some more study and decided I was wrong initially."
Now, BAR members commit at the first step. Period.
How could such an important change have escaped public notice and review?
Mr. DeMarco voted against approval of the Clemson building from the start. And the Preservation Society of Charleston and the neighborhood associations for Ansonborough and Charlestown were also opposed. Historic Charleston Foundation supported conceptual approval but is now opposed. It had endorsed the idea of a "high quality contemporary design in a part of the city that could handle such architecture." But changes since then - including removal of the green roof and a third floor garden, and extending the metal "shade wall" - made the plans unacceptable to HCF.
Clearly Mr. DeMarco is right. Approving the "architectural direction" too early is a serious mistake.
The Preservation Society of Charleston agrees. Director of advocacy Robert Gurley said a discussion about a project's architecture can, and should, begin early, but it should stay in play until the project gets final approval. Or disapproval.
No one should be surprised by the tension this issue has caused. It has glided through the system while an application for a sign on a King Street business has been sent back three times and is still not approved.
Clemson has plans for a modern glass-and-concrete building that features a metal "shade wall" selectively pierced to let in light. It will be located on a prominent corner at Meeting and George streets in the historic district of a city with one of the most extensive inventories of historic structures in the country.
It's a recipe for controversy.
It has been more than a year and a half since the BAR first approved the project - over protests from the public. During that time, members have heard from many people and seen opposition grow. They have had time to seek additional guidance. Perhaps some of the members, seeing the issue in the light of day, have had second thoughts, as did HCF. Maybe it is, after all, the wrong design for that location.
But their votes were locked in, and any input from the public after that was mere eyewash. A different entry, a change in the roof, reworking the shade wall so it won't collect dirt. But the two large bulges on the south facade are still there.
Opponents have contended that the design is in direct conflict with the BAR's standards that call for "preventing developments which are not in harmony with the prevailing character of Charleston" or the neighborhood.
Appealing a BAR decision means going to Circuit Court. It is unclear if opponents of the building will take that course even though they are convinced the building doesn't meet BAR standards. And some say the project was given conceptual approval before the rules changed and must be considered under the previous rules. That seems only fair.
Meanwhile, if residents want to be heard on changes in the city's built environment, they'll have to do so when a project is first introduced.
And when they're at the next BAR meeting, perhaps they'll want to join Mr. DeMarco's call for a more thoughtful approval process.
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