The Beach Company hoped lowering its controversial Sergeant Jasper redevelopment from 214 feet to 159 feet would be enough to get the city’s blessing to build, but it came up short.
Charleston’s Board of Architectural Review voted Wednesday to deny the height, scale and mass of the project, which would include 80 luxury residences, 118,000 square feet of office space and retail space — all wrapped around a hidden parking garage with 592 spaces.
About 250 residents packed into the Charleston Museum’s auditorium, and the vast majority of them opposed the project. Most who spoke said its height — while no taller than the existing, empty apartment building — is too great a contrast with surrounding historic homes.
Mayor Joe Riley was among the few who supported the plan. Riley called this site “an unusual situation” and said the proposed design would be “substantially more attractive” than the existing 14-story tower.
Few disputed the quality of the proposed project’s architectural detailing, which featured brick, stone and metal elements framing a clear base, shaft and cornice. Instead, they focused on its overall height and mass. Two candidates vying to succeed Riley in this fall’s mayoral election, former City Councilman Paul Tinkler and businessman John Tecklenburg, both urged the board to defer or reject the plan. And they were joined by residents and preservation groups.
The Beach Co.’s architects, Antunovich Associates and LS3P Associates, addressed the board’s criticism from last month, mainly that its 18-story tower was too tall.
“The design team is very proud that we’re good listeners,” architect Joe Antunovich said. “All of the comments that have been made at our last meeting have been incorporated into the new design.”
But Robert Gurley of the Preservation Society of Charleston said its reduced size still would be “a violent interruption” in the surrounding historic neighborhoods.
“We would ask you not focus on the pretty picture masked with grand trees. These renderings are not realistic,” he said. “All the marble in Italy or (famous 16th century Italian architect Andrea) Palladio himself could not mask the incongruity of this design.”
Landscape architect Sheila Wertimer, a former BAR member, said she did not want to speak on what has become such a highly charged issue, but added that approving the project could set in motion a domino effect across the city. “I really feel if this motion goes forward, the city we love will be diminished,” she said.
Wednesday’s proposed design was the third scheme The Beach Co. has presented this year. Its original version, a series of four- to seven-story buildings built closer to the street, was withdrawn after residents voiced opposition over a necessary zoning change. Its second scheme, involving an 18-story tower, needed no zoning change, but the board deferred approval so certain elements, including the height of that tower, could be restudied.
Board member Jay White, himself an architect, moved to deny the project because it “remains out of keeping with the height, mass and scale of the surrounding historic district.”
When the board doesn’t like a project, it often will vote for deferral, providing a list of details and considerations for the design team to work on. But Wednesday’s 3-2 vote was to deny, not defer. “I think that denial is a blanket denial to completely start over,” White said.
White was joined by members Bob Faust and acting chair Erika Harrison. Members Bill Wallace and Janette Alexander opposed the motion to deny.
Wallace explained his support by noting the property is as close to a U.S. Coast Guard station, armory and former school as it is to surrounding homes. “Everybody has their own definition of words, and this is a site that’s extremely unique. I don’t consider the site to be in the middle of a residential neighborhood.”
The next step could play out before Charleston City Council, which is expected to consider a Planning Commission recommendation that the property’s height limit be rezoned from its current flexible limit — which allows more than 200 feet in height — to 55 feet.
The company also could renovate its existing building, which it has been ridding of lead paint and asbestos in anticipation of its demolition. The board already has voted to allow its demolition.
Afterward, Beach Co. President John Darby released a statement saying he was disappointed with the vote, “but we remain committed to developing a quality project befitting this special part of the peninsula.”
About 40 people who turned out for the meeting weren’t allowed inside the full auditorium, at least temporarily.
City Councilman Mike Seekings said he was one of them, but they later were allowed in. Seekings told the board there were more people in the auditorium than the number that voted in his last council district election. “Here’s the place right now to say we can do better,” he said.