The Charleston Board of Architectural Review is going to make people unhappy regardless of what it finally decides on the modernistic Clemson building proposed for the corner of George and Meeting streets.
But city staff, by muddying the process, put members in the crossfire unnecessarily.
If anything, the process should have been handled with particular care, given the structure's controversial design.
Indeed, BAR Chairman Robert DeMarco felt so strongly that, after the BAR gave preliminary approval to the project, he put on his Ansonborough neighborhood hat and joined other opponents in an unusual move to ask the Charleston County Legislative Delegation for help. Chairman Chip Limehouse agreed that the delegation would ask Clemson's president and board chairman to reconsider the design.
Generally, state legislators are well advised to attend to state business and leave local matters to local jurisdictions. But if the involvement of delegation members is unorthodox, so is the way the request is being handled by the BAR.
The questions being raised need answers, even if the result is for the BAR to reconsider its decisions thus far about Clemson's proposal.
Specifically, it is important to know if the BAR approved the "architectural direction" of Clemson's proposed building in October of 2012. Or did it approve only the building's height, scale and mass?
And if BAR members did approve the general design, did they know that they did?
According to city staff, they did approve the architectural direction and they knew they were doing so.
But Mr. DeMarco sees it differently.
Here's why: The BAR's rules, for years and years, had provided for three levels of scrutiny for large projects:
The first, conceptual approval, involved height, scale and mass. Next was the design itself, which the BAR could approve with caveats. Third was final approval.
But it was only a few weeks after the BAR gave the Clemson project conceptual approval a year and a half ago that city staff reworded the policy and said conceptual approval meant height, scale, mass and "architectural direction."
Tim Keane, director of planning, design and sustainability for the city, insists that the change was only to formalize what the board had been doing for some time.
"To suggest that the Rule of Procedure change had anything to do with the Clemson conceptual approval is ludicrous," he told us.
Besides, he said, the BAR at any one of the three levels could reject the plan altogether, so if there was confusion, it really didn't matter.
But it was clear from comments made at the meeting this month to give preliminary approval to the project that there was plenty of confusion.
And to make matters more confusing, city staff more than once reminded members that they had approved the architectural direction and should "move on" and consider adjustments to the plans and details. That certainly indicated that it was inappropriate to reconsider the architecture itself.
One BAR member cautioned her colleagues that "the horse has left the barn" regarding the design, and said their job was to approve or disapprove the changes.
At best, it would appear the rules were clumsily applied. At worst, it would appear that the city's interpretation of the rules shifted during the process, thereby keeping a controversial building plan on track.
Mr. DeMarco has said he would like to see the rules revert to their original wording so that "architectural direction" isn't decided until the preliminary approval. That gives members more time to think about the proposal and hear from the public.
In any event, the disconnects that have surfaced while the BAR considers the Clemson building must be clarified. And that includes the manner in which they were applied to the Clemson building.
Members must know when they are giving a developer the general go-ahead and when they're just saying "acceptable start."
They need to be disabused of the idea that once the "architectural direction" has been approved that their hands are tied. They can revise or reject it at any level.
Projects like the Clemson building are controversial on their own.
The process by which they are approved or disapproved should be crystal clear and fair from beginning to end.
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