Jasper plan needs public input

Houses along Lockwood Drive and the Sergeant Jasper apartment building -- viewed from the James Island Expressway on Wednesday. Wade Spees/Staff May 13, 2015.

For all the talk about the Sergeant Jasper redevelopment in recent weeks, precious little has been said in public meetings.

Charleston City Council agreed to a settlement with the Beach Company without public input. Then the BAR followed suit — without public input.

At a special meeting at 5 p.m. today on the first floor of 2 George Street, the city Planning Commission will be asked to amend the city’s Comprehensive Plan and then change the zoning for the prominent piece of property at the west end of Broad Street.

This could be one of the last critical steps of a planning process that has been long and convoluted. And that is even more reason for the public to take advantage of this opportunity to learn what is being proposed and to comment on it.

The zoning change is opposed by Historic Charleston Foundation for several good reasons. It conflicts with the Comprehensive Plan, the Preservation Plan and “decades of historic preservation and urban planning policy,” according to the HCF website.

To someone new on the scene the Sergeant Jasper saga might seem to be all about the proposed building’s height, its density, its architecture and the traffic it will generate.

In reality, it is about all those things and preserving the historic city of Charleston.

Sad to say, in this gloves-off fight, the future of the city’s Board of Architectural Review — one of its key tools in maintaining the city’s historic areas and guiding new development — is being used as ammunition.

For more than 50 years, the BAR has done great service by, among other things, stopping the destruction of countless historic houses and buildings.

Then last year the BAR denied the Beach Company’s request to replace the 14-story Sergeant Jasper apartment building with a larger one.

The Beach Company sued the BAR over the decision. Mediation failed, and Judge J.C. Nicholson’s response appeared to threaten the BAR’s authority.

Later, both the Beach Company and Judge Nicholson said they did not want to render the BAR ineffective. Nevertheless that is just what seems to be hanging in the balance.

And that is supposedly why the city and the BAR agreed to the Beach Company’s demands as outlined in private meetings between the Beach Company and the city.

Charlestowne Neighborhood Association President Virginia Bush, in a recent column on our Commentary page, said a better response would have been to appeal the judge’s ruling — if indeed that ruling should be unfavorable — and clear up the city ordinances that define the BAR’s scope of authority.

By conceding to the Beach Company, the city is allowing a development that neighbors and preservationists agree is out of character with its surroundings. But the city is also signaling to other property owners who want to do an end-run around the BAR that the way to do so is to file a lawsuit.

Full details of the city’s agreement with the Beach Company have not been announced. They are believed to include a building roughly the height of the existing building, but covering a much larger footprint; dropping the BAR lawsuit; and designating 0.75 acres of St. Mary’s Field (part of the Jasper site) for a park. Ms. Bush contends that it is unclear when the park would be built and who would own it.

Using the opportunities available to the public through the city’s regular approval processes — commenting on the building’s appearance at two BAR meetings and on the site’s zoning at today’s Planning Commission meeting — is not likely to bring about the major changes that are necessary for the project to be acceptable. The BAR has already conceded to the project’s controversial height.

That leaves the public and public organizations to decide whether to take action to mitigate the negative aspects of the Sergeant Jasper project — and protect the BAR.

Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting should provide a forum for the public to gather information they need to decide their next steps.