Charleston’s new mayor and all but one member of City Council caved in to pressure on them by the pugnacious Beach Company, paving the way for construction of a massive “Chicago Style” residential and office complex at the “Broad Street Gateway” on the western end of the Old and Historic District.
The development company, whose founder purchased and filled a former city-owned mudflat 65 years ago, is poised to level its vacated 14-story Sgt. Jasper apartment building there and replace it with a taller tower and additional multi-story buildings, including a parking garage, and quadrupling the size of the complex to the increasingly flood-prone corner of Broad Street and Lockwood Drive.
The obtrusive Jasper building opened in 1950 after a bitter fight pitting the housing project’s supporters — including the mayor and most of the city’s aldermen, one of whom was the developer himself — against a host of historic preservationists and its downtown neighbors.
The towering eyesore has been a suffering source of contention ever since, even though the Beach Company had agreed in writing to add no more buildings on the site and to abide by all rulings of the city’s independent Board of Architectural Review.
Thus, the Beach Company’s more recent decision to vacate and remove the aging Jasper building was welcomed by preservationists and neighbors alike.
That is until the company launched a public relations campaign promising to work closely with neighbors on a redevelopment plan that would improve everyone’s quality of life. This sales pitch went over like a 14-story pile of bricks.
Mayoral candidate John Tecklenburg was in a tight race at the time. So he boldly stepped up to the microphone at a public hearing packed with downtown voters and promised if elected he would do all he could to restrict the Beach Company’s new apartment tower to eight stories at the center and five stories along the streetscape.
He later said the Beach Company’s vacant 2.7-acre landfill called St. Mary’s Field between Barre Street and Lockwood Drive on the Ashley River should become a public park.
Not long after Mayor Tecklenburg took office, the city’s stalwart Board of Architectural Review rejected the size and scale of the Beach Company’s massive proposal.
So, as promised, the developer filed a lawsuit threatening to strip the review board of its long-held authority.
The fear of the suit and a lack of patience to wait for a district judge’s pending ruling on its legality cowed the mayor and most of the council, some of whom have since made it clear that improving the quality of life for downtown residents is not their priority.
Agreements between the Beach Company and the city have since been negotiated in privacy.
Last week, preservation leaders and neighborhood association presidents complained prior to a critical vote by the city Planning Commission on changing a zoning ordinance to accommodate the Beach Company’s proposal.
“How is it possible to have a meaningful discussion about the future of this site if we are not provided critical information until five minutes before your hearing is called to order?” asked one member of the audience.
Said another, “It’s obvious city leaders mistakenly believe that to save the Board of Architectural Review they must give in to the Beach Company,” citing its heavy-handed tactics.
At least the planning commissioners stayed the proper course, and voted 5-2 to reject a customized rezoning change that would allow the Beach Co. to get its way without bothering further with the public.
Other city officials, elected and appointed, should do the same.
John M. Burbage is a journalist, editor and book publisher who lives in downtown Charleston and owns a farm in Hampton County.