Clemson building foes step up fight

An architect's rendering shows the proposed building at 292 Meeting St., as viewed from the corner of Meeting and George streets.

Opponents of the design of the new Clemson Architecture Center set for downtown Charleston are doing an end-run, appealing directly to Statehouse lawmakers to pressure leaders into changing the building's controversial modern look.

Bob DeMarco, chairman of the city of Charleston's Board of Architectural Review - and who was also on the losing side of a recent BAR approval vote - addressed members of the county legislative delegation late Thursday asking them to get involved.

His goal, he said, is to get their support in "stopping the project while it is still going through the approval process."

DeMarco was critical of what he said were limited opportunities for public input and of the design of the building itself, which a variety of opponents contend is too modern in its influence and out of character with the surrounding neighborhoods.

"This building is swathed in concrete," he told lawmakers. "Everywhere is concrete."

DeMarco said negative labels are already starting to take hold on the site, including "the Cheese-Grater Building."

DeMarco's comments came during the public input period of what was the delegation's regularly scheduled July meeting.

Following his request for help, delegation Chairman and state Rep. Chip Limehouse, who lives near the proposed Clemson site, agreed the delegation should intervene. He said letters would be sent to the BAR and to Clemson President James Clements and Board of Trustees Chairman David Wilkins about concerns in the process and to urge that Clemson reconsider the size, scale and appearance of the building.

"At the point we're at, the design can be changed," Limehouse, R-Charleston, said, adding that he has heard numerous complaints from locals about the building's planned appearance.

Limehouse also said he sees nothing out of sorts with state lawmakers getting involved in what otherwise could be considered a local Charleston design matter.

"Clemson is a state school, and I think we're allowed to have an opinion," he said.

Also backing the effort against the current design was Republican state Sen. Chip Campsen. "Personally, I think Clemson should change their mind," he said, although he was careful to term the delegation's interest as not being the start of a piece of legislation or any official decree.

"I share the opinion that many others share, that it is not in line with the historic nature of downtown Charleston architecture," Campsen added.

The letters to Clemson's leadership would not be delivered in a form indicating "you must" change the design, Limehouse said. But they would point out that there is a now an opportunity for the building to be redone in a fashion more receptive to the community.

On Friday, Clemson responded to the delegation's heightened interest by issuing a statement indicating that officials are adhering to the current design approval requirements set by the city of Charleston.

"While we can't comment on a letter we haven't seen, we are following procedures established by the city for review of the building's design, which is still a work in progress," Clemson's Chief Public Affairs Officer Cathy Sams said.

"The design continues to be refined based on guidance from the BAR and other constituents," she added.

The design of the building, slated for the corner of George and Meetings streets, has been a subject of significant controversy as various local neighborhood associations and preservationist groups have spoken out against it.

On the flip side, however, others in the community have been supportive, saying the building is both forward-thinking and elevates the discussion of architecture in Charleston. It will go by the name Spaulding Paolozzi Center.

During the meeting with the Charleston lawmakers, DeMarco said he was appearing as an Ansonborough neighborhood resident, not in his capacity with the BAR, which voted last month to endorse another step in the approval process.

Reached Friday, some of the BAR members who were on the presiding side that favored the modern look said they were unaware of DeMarco's push to get lawmakers to intervene and otherwise declined to comment.

"No comment on that," said BAR member Phyllis Ewing. BAR member Jay White, who supported the current design, also said he didn't want to say anything publicly.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.