The Board of Architectural Review's granting of preliminary approval for the Clemson Architecture Center on June 25 has severely undermined the original intent of Charleston City Council when it passed the ordinance establishing the nation's first historic district in 1931.
A critical component of that ordinance was the creation of a Board of Architectural Review (BAR), designed to ensure that the public had a voice in shaping the future of the historic district. The Clemson debate illustrates the urgent need for a revision in the zoning ordinance to include not only the first "conceptual" phase, but also the second "preliminary" phase as critical and co-equal parts of defining a building's architectural direction.
In 1931, the Preservation Society of Charleston, then known as the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings, was instrumental in persuading City Council to pass the ordinance. Since then, the Society has been a consistent advocate for maintaining the integrity of the historic district at every BAR meeting.
In 1956, the Society changed its name to the Preservation Society of Charleston largely because we saw that our work needed to extend beyond the fate of individual buildings to encompass the historic district as a whole.
Charleston's subsequent establishment in 1966 as a National Register Historic District speaks directly to the fact that the character and integrity of our neighborhoods are matters of not only local and regional interest, but of national interest as well.
The controversy surrounding the Clemson Architecture Center is not simply a question of style or taste. Nor is it merely a matter of the architect's responsibility to design with respect to the historic context of the adjacent neighborhood. In fact, the issue is one of law.
Charleston's ordinance requires the BAR to prevent designs that are not in harmony with the prevailing character of Charleston or that are obviously incongruous with this character.
While the design of the Clemson Architecture Center may mirror its architect's values, it clearly fails to speak to the context, to the community, or to the values that originally brought about the creation of the BAR.
The Preservation Society of Charleston, Historic Charleston Foundation, Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association and Charlestowne Neighborhood Association have all urged the BAR to send the proposed design back to the drawing board. These groups represent a sizable contingent of the citizens who live in the historic district and who commit their time and resources to supporting its buildings.
The community voices have spoken, yet they are not being heard. To truncate the public discussion in this way is to violate the spirit and intent of the civic impulse that created the 1931 ordinance and the BAR.
Whatever the ultimate fate of the Clemson building, the question remains:
How do we fix an important public process that is clearly broken?
As The Post and Courier effectively highlighted in Sunday's lead editorial, the Board of Architectural Review's approval process must be re-examined in light of the intent of the original ordinance. The chairman of the BAR, Bob DeMarco, was quoted in the editorial advocating a return to the more deliberative process that has eroded over time.
We agree with Mr. DeMarco that the period between conceptual and preliminary review is critical. Members of the BAR and the public need time to become better informed about a project so that they may either grow comfortable with a design or articulate why it is inappropriate.
BAR members have a difficult job and serve the community as volunteers.
We believe we can best support their efforts by giving them the freedom to discuss architectural style at both the conceptual and preliminary levels. Restoring a more iterative process will relieve BAR members of the need to make seemingly irrevocable decisions in an atmosphere of haste. A rush to judgment does neither the applicant nor the community justice.
To learn more about the BAR and to view pending applications complete with drawings, we refer readers either to the City of Charleston's website or to the website of the Preservation Society of Charleston.
Eighty-three years ago, the Preservation Society played a crucial role in the passage of Charleston's critically important preservation ordinance.
Today, as our city confronts the challenges and opportunities that come with a growing economy and a surging population, it is most important that we protect a process that provides time for appropriate deliberation and for a community voice in shaping the future of our historic district.
Kristopher B. King is president of the Board of Directors of the Preservation Society of Charleston.
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