It's far from the first controversial building proposed in downtown Charleston, but Clemson University's proposed architecture center is one of the few to trigger a lawsuit over the city's approval of its design.

Other hotly debated buildings

Some prominent past examples of buildings that have rubbed some the wrong way.

Charleston Gateway Center - This office building at Calhoun and East Bay streets was one of the city's first buildings to use metal louvers to limit the direct sun on the windows. Some felt they looked like luggage racks inside a bus.

9 Prices Alley - This small, modern home was approved by the Board of Architectural Review when one of its fiercest critics (and the mother of its would-be owner) was on vacation out of town.

Mendel Rivers Federal Building - There was strong public sentiment to see this 1960 office building at Meeting and Charlotte streets torn down, but that has shifted during the last decade. Plans now call for remodeling it as a hotel.

Former Bank of America building - The architect did not have to seek BAR approval and has said that's why he felt comfortable proceeding with such a modern, innovative design at Calhoun and Gadsden streets. Some have grown to love the T-shaped building, which is now under BAR protection.

The College of Charleston's Addlestone Library - Its revolving doors, large glass opening and concrete cylinders along Coming Street had little in common with the rest of the college's historic campus, but its western façade - a series of house-sized green boxes - helped soften its appearance.

Last month, the Board of Architectural Review voted 4-2 to give preliminary approval to the Spaulding Paolozzi Center design by Portland, Ore., architect Brad Cloepfil. The vote marked the second level of approval in the city's three-step review.

The design, which features curving, perforated concrete walls, metal screens along Meeting Street and other modern elements rarely found in the historic district, won approval despite opposition from the city's leading preservation groups and two neighborhoods.

Charleston's policy for new construction

The following was among nine Charleston-specific standards that the Board of Architectural Review agreed upon as far as guiding its decisions.

Whether the board properly followed this standard is one issue at stake in a new lawsuit.

"New Construction should be sympathetic to the historic features that characterize its setting and context. To respect the significance of the historic context, the new work should respect the historic materials, features, size, scale, proportions, and massing of its setting."

This week, the Historic Charleston Foundation, the Preservation Society and the Charlestowne and Historic Ansonborough neighborhood associations took their fight to another venue: Charleston County's Court of Common Pleas.

Their lawsuit against the city and Clemson alleges that the board erred when approving the project four weeks ago.

Specifically, it says the board changed its rules after the center's design won conceptual - or initial - approval in October 2012. At that time, the lawsuit said initial approval only covered a proposed building's height, scale and mass, but since that vote, the board expanded conceptual approval to include "the general architectural direction and quality."

When the design returned for further review on June 24, at least one board member said the project's general architectural direction already had been decided.

"The net effect of that violation, misapprehension, or misapplication of the law .... was that the public, including the (plaintiffs), was deprived of any meaningful opportunity to comment on the design of the project," the lawsuit states.

Kristopher King, president of the Preservation Society, said allowing comments on a project's architectural direction only during the first hearing limits the public's voice. He also criticized the quiet way the city expanded what is included on conceptual review. "It wasn't voted on," he added.

While the lawsuit specifically seeks another public review of Clemson's design, preservationists said they hope it also could lead to more specific guidelines for what type of architecture should be allowed in the city's most historic core.

"The board members, the community, the applicants all need to know what the rules are," King said.

Winslow Hastie of the Historic Charleston Foundation noted the city's 2007 preservation plan recommended changes to the city's process, including an effort to clarify the procedures for all review tracks and to tie decisions more to findings of fact. "We've gone from relative clarity to a muddying of the waters," Hastie said. "We know there have been some issues with the subjectivity of the BAR. It's fairly unorthodox. We like to do things our own way."

City officials declined comment Thursday on the particulars of the lawsuit.

Cathy Sams, Clemson's chief public affairs officer, said the university has had a strong presence in the Lowcountry for years, "and we have been a good neighbor."

Sams said the university doesn't comment on pending lawsuits, but added, "Clemson is committed to continuing to be a good neighbor and having a positive impact on the economy and quality of life in Charleston."

The subjectivity of the city's review process has been an issue long before Clemson tried to build a new architecture center at Meeting and George streets, as many have questioned why certain building designs won approval.

Unlike Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the historic architecture is more homogenous, Charleston's historic building designs span a few centuries, from Georgian to Federal to Greek Revival to Victorian and other stylistic eras.

Coming up with specific guidelines for what's appropriate has proven an elusive and even controversial task, particularly since different properties can have very different historic contexts.

The city's ordinance says the BAR "shall consider, among other things, the general design, scale of structures, arrangement, texture, materials and color of the structure in question, and the relation of such elements to similar features of structures in the immediate surroundings."

With a lot of new construction expected downtown, some think this is a good time for city officials to give the board a clearer set of guidelines for reviewing new architecture.

"We are in an unprecedented period of growth," Hastie said, "so now is not the time to have the integrity of the process in question."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.