1 Meeting St. mansion can be divided

The owners of 1 Meeting St. recently received the city’s permission to make the large home into three condominiums.

A Charleston board’s decision to allow the grand home at 1 Meeting St. to become three condominiums has preservationists worried about a possible burst of similar requests and others questioning the city’s zoning laws.

This week, the family that has owned the large antebellum mansion where Meeting Street meets White Point Garden succeeded in their second attempt to get the city’s permission to divide up the 11,149-square-foot 1854 home.

The family tried to do the same thing last November but was rebuffed by a coalition of neighbors and preservationists, who feared the precedent it would set for other large homes downtown.

That Board of Zoning Appeals’ vote was 5-1 against, while this week’s vote was 5-1 in favor.

A big difference was how the case was made. This time, the family was represented by Charleston lawyer Capers Barr III, who cited the city’s zoning code and researched county property records to show the family has a legal right to additional dwelling units.

He noted the mansion is the sixth largest house south of Broad Street, based on its square footage.

And he noted the city’s zoning code states additional dwelling units shall be permitted if the board finds there’s enough space and “that it is unreasonable to require its use as single-family dwelling.”

“The ordinance says additional dwelling units ‘shall’ be permitted, not ‘may,’ ” Barr said Friday. “ ‘Shall’ is a mandatory term instead of a discretionary one.”

He also noted the county’s property records show the median square footage of single-family homes south of Broad Street was 2,892. The average square footage of three newly created units inside 1 Meeting would be at least 3,100, he said, and no unit could be smaller than 1,800 square feet.

The Hawk family — which has listed the property for sale for about $5.4 million — had sought the change because none of them are interested in residing in and maintaining such a large home. They already have had city permission for two units there — the ground floor has been a separate apartment — so Barr noted the request was really for only one additional unit.

But residents had several reasons why they remained opposed, said Jay Williams, a resident of the surrounding Charlestowne Neighborhood.

Williams said the opposition stems in part from the perception that condominium owners often don’t spend as much time here. “I think condominiums are impersonal in many cases,” he said. “Knowing your neighbors, being able to converse with them and have dinner with them, that’s what Charleston is about. It’s a social city.”

Also, Williams said residents are concerned about the interior architectural impact of dividing up a prominent historic home, as well as whether there will be enough parking.

Barr noted the zoning code, in this instance, does not ask the board to consider such impacts.

And he showed a list of other downtown homes that had been divided into separate units to prove that, in Charleston, “condominiums are not necessarily ‘Palm Beach’ or ‘Myrtle Beach.’ ”

Barr also noted that homes south of Broad Street are more diverse than one might think. He said they include two specialty hotels, 12 apartment buildings, 25 bed and breakfasts, and 274 condominium units in about 40 different buildings.

Williams said the 1 Meeting decision — along with the 3X height zoning on the Sergeant Jasper site — shows how the city’s zoning code needs a rewrite.

“I think a lot of people believe that the ordinances in Charleston are great and protect the city,” he said, “but the more I get into the ordinances of Charleston, the more I believe they are not as good as they need to be.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.