Charleston is growing at warp speed, and much is at stake in the ongoing public conversation over hotels and high-rises. The debate goes well beyond “quality of life,” penetrating to the very core of our city’s character.
What kind of community do we want to be? How should we think about shaping growth and development? And what is the best way to protect Charleston’s “buildings, customs, and laws,” as the city’s motto has it?
While the Sergeant Jasper is often portrayed as a “peninsula issue,” residents of every neighborhood in the City of Charleston should sit up and take note of what is going on. With areas from West Ashley to Cainhoy on the cusp of revitalization or expansion, our planning processes are all we have to protect against hasty, ill-considered decisions that do not adequately take into account neighborhood character and residents’ desires to shape the future of their community.
The latest twists in the Sergeant Jasper saga are worth understanding in a bit more detail for what they reveal about our threatened planning process and what they forecast about the future of development in Charleston.
Last Tuesday, the Planning Commission was asked to consider amending to the city’s Century V Comprehensive Plan to allow for the creation of a new zoning category known as a “gateway” zone. At the core of this meeting was a crudely cobbled-together ordinance designed to satisfy one property owner, with no broader application elsewhere in the city.
The Century V Comprehensive Plan, mandated by state law, is the backbone of the planning process, created with a great deal of public input. The amendment allowing the gateways, however, had not been informed by any sort of public meeting or study and, incredibly, was not even shared with the commission or the public until after the meeting started. This is no way to amend such an important plan. Without advance distribution of the materials, the city’s presentation of the gateway ordinance raised more questions than it answered. Displaying a map of Charleston on the screen at the front of the room, city staff pointed to several circled areas that were considered appropriate “gateway locations” because they were situated on roads that have the capacity for additional traffic. In addition to the Sergeant Jasper location, the gateways proposed by the city were located at the intersections of the James Island Connector and Calhoun, Lockwood and the Crosstown, Highways 17 and 61, and Clements Ferry Road and I-526. West Ashley residents in particular might rightly wonder how, exactly, they are to get downtown if there is additional traffic at these already clogged intersections.
The commissioners seemed concerned and skeptical.
“Why,” one commissioner asked, “are these gateways?” “Has a traffic study been done?” asked another.
The questions kept coming: “Is it true the ordinance was not distributed until tonight?” “How is this not spot zoning?” “Why couldn’t the city use existing zoning tools such as Mixed-Use/Workforce Housing classification instead of creating a new classification?” And most tellingly, “How is this in the best interests of the citizens?”
The Gateway ordinance is a political exercise, not a planning document. It was born out of the city’s settlement with the Beach Company to avoid the somewhat lengthier process of rezoning the property. The city concocted this questionable “gateway” category whose impacts and consequences seem not to have been thought through at all. To wit: the Gateway zoning ordinance allows for a building height of 160 feet, and 81,000 square feet of floor area per acre. Is the city seriously suggesting that we allow massive 12-14 story high-rises at gateway locations into Charleston?
Kudos to the Planning Commission for asking the right questions and for preventing this hastily conceived and poorly vetted proposal from flying through on the wings of political expediency. In her motion to deny, longtime commissioner Barbara Ellison aptly described this as “a contrived gateway location with unknown consequences.” Twice, the chairman of the commission asked for a show of hands in opposition to the two agenda items. Twice, every hand in the packed meeting room (save those of city staff and Beach Company representatives) shot up into the air.
Despite the Planning Commission’s public discussion, review, and denial of these proposals, many expect City Council to push them through at its meeting on Tuesday, July 19 at the Gaillard Center. In recent months, members of council have been vocal in their disregard for “volunteer” boards and their impatience with the deliberative planning processes that are so important to the character of Charleston. Now more than ever, it is critical to uphold the review processes embodied by the Planning Commission, the Board of Architectural Review and the Board of Zoning Appeals, among others. These processes can be frustrating, particularly for developers who seek a quick profit, but at their best they create breathing room for thoughtful analysis of the consequences and impacts of development. And they are currently at risk of being truncated, undermined, and trumped by political considerations.
Call or email your council members to let them know that their decision on Tuesday evening will telegraph their approach to the future of growth and development in every part of the city, from Folly Road to Clement’s Ferry. Better yet, show up for Tuesday’s meeting at 5 p.m. in the Gaillard Center and make your voice heard. But bring a sandwich, as the agenda is bursting at the seams with important decisions, the Gateway ordinance among them, that will in large measure shape Charleston’s future.
Betsy Kirkland Cahill is board chair and Kristopher B. King is executive director of the Charleston Preservation Society.