Charleston’s effort to renovate its review of new architecture and changes to historic buildings began in earnest Thursday — and like many renovations, it revealed issues not seen at first.
The city’s Planning Commission heard from consultant Andres Duany and from the public about how the Board of Architectural Review — and the entire review process — should be altered.
“Charleston is such an extraordinary place. Its basic platform of architecture and urbanism is so good that if nothing were done, you would be OK,” Duany said. “The challenge the mayor gave us is could you do it even better.”
Thursday was a follow-up from Duany’s lively meetings in March to attempt to pinpoint how the city can minimize the rancor and inefficiencies in its review process and, more importantly, get more beautiful new buildings.
His report recommended splitting the BAR into two boards, one that would specialize in new, larger architecture and another focused on smaller historic renovations.
It also suggested dividing the city’s historic streets into one of three categories of varied importance — and using those new zones to consider new design.
Planning Director Jacob Lindsey said Thursday’s meeting was called to ensure the public and planning commissioners understand the intent behind any proposed changes, which still are to be drafted.
“We hope to create better-quality architecture and a more predictable review process,” he said. “That’s our goal.”
Charleston architect and architectural professor Ray Huff said the idea of splitting the board into two new boards was a good way to ease the heavy workload, but he questioned how its members should be chosen.
Kristopher King, executive director of the Preservation Society, said he thinks dividing the board in two should be seriously considered but it would be premature to approve the plan. He particularly questioned the building typologies in the report.
“We feel Charleston should not be a proving ground for an attempt that has not been tried in a historic city,” he said, adding that the society would be willing to sponsor a tour evaluating the board’s work.
Commissioner Valerie Perry said Duany’s report produced “a wonderful document” and other commissioners also described it as a good start.
“I’m sure there will be a lot more input before the final pieces come out,” she said.
Winslow Hastie of the Historic Charleston Foundation, said the foundation is pleased to have helped pay for the $79,000 report, and noted that putting the changes in place will be a separate process.
“It’s been an unfair situation to be frank with the architects and developers not knowing what the city wants,” Hastie said.
West Ashley resident Bill Eubanks, who works with the Urban Edge Studio, said the city is more than the peninsula, and the report doesn’t mention how the Board of Architectural Review should dovetail into the city’s Design Review Board, which reviews larger new buildings outside the historic district.
“I think we need to slow down and not act too quickly on this,” he said.
A few speakers said the recommendations don’t do anything to address the city’s gentrification, which is leading to a lack of diversity.
Duany replied that he knew of no successful mechanism to stop gentrification, which many cities, including Charleston, once actively pursued.
“It’s extremely difficult to stop gentrification because it’s based on the quality of the place,” he said. “You’re suffering from success and very high land values.”
Richard Gowe, an architect with LS3P, noted the city also needs to consider updating its inventory of historic buildings, which was last updated in 1986. “What we thought was really handsome then might be a dog today and vice versa,” he said.
It’s unclear when a draft ordinance will be presented to the Planning Commission — or ultimately to City Council — and the clock is ticking.
Mayor Joe Riley has sought Duany’s advice for decades and has been vocal about the need to improve the city’s process to ensure better buildings, but he is leaving office in January.
The six candidates running for his job have expressed different views about whether they would support Duany’s main recommendation: splitting the board into two boards.
The board also has come under legal fire since Duany’s first visit. The Beach Co. sued the board for rejecting a proposed replacement building on its Sergeant Jasper apartment site, even though the proposed design met city zoning and was praised for its architectural quality, though not its size.
While the lawsuit asks a court to declare the city’s 1931 ordinance that created the board unconstitutional, the company released a statement Thursday saying it has worked with the board in the past and “has never indicated a desire to eliminate it.”
CEO John Darby pointed out that the report echoes the problems the Beach Co. faced are noted in Duany’s report.
“What Mr. Duany foreshadowed in his initial observations became reality for the Sergeant Jasper project — the feedback we received was subjective and inconclusive, leaving us guessing on the direction to go,” he said. “That is no way to do business, and it is not good for Charleston.”
Reach Robert Behre at (843) 937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.