Charleston's Board of Architectural Review voted 3-2 Wednesday to defer what some said would be the city's tallest building, but a revised version similar to the current Sergeant Jasper, with more sophisticated detail, might ultimately pass.
The vote came at the end of more than two hours of impassioned arguments, mostly from downtown residents and preservationists opposed to The Beach Co.'s latest plan for an 18-story, 214-foot-tall tower as part of a mixed retail, office and luxury residential complex on western Broad Street.
The board's motion to defer urged the company and its architect to lower the height of the building's tallest portion and consider a few other changes.
Other parts of the proposed complex, which also includes a 592-car garage inside, are eight stories or lower.
Many commended its proposed design: Chicago architect Joe Antunovich presented a brick and cast-stone structure resembling a grand, early 20th century building, complete with a distinct base, shaft and cornice line, not unlike the Francis Marion Hotel on Marion Square.
But many more said the structure is simply too tall. Its 214 feet would be lower than the tip of some of the city's church steeples, but its mass would extend more than 60 feet taller than the site's existing, vacant 14-story building.
“The building is actually too tall in my estimation,” BAR member Jay White said. “I struggle too to understand the concept of 'Building in the Park' because that is such an anomalous thing for Charleston.”
“I don't think this needs to be the tallest building in downtown Charleston,” BAR member Bill Wallace added.
The Beach Co. originally proposed a series of much lower apartment buildings, about four floors tall rising up to seven stories back from the street. But those buildings were proposed to be built close to Broad Street, not set back like the current plan. Strong opposition to that project's density, as well as its planned 24-hour grocery store, led The Beach Co. to pull that scheme and start over.
Its new plan more closely resembles its old Sergeant Jasper, which was built in the late 1940s, a few decades before the city's zoning ordinance had a height limit.
“The building is beautiful,” BAR member Bob Faust said of the new proposal, but added that he agreed that it was too tall.
Antunovich noted the site's zoning actually would allow a building as tall as 330 feet, though the Beach Co. never considered building that high.
“The applicants are wonderful community leaders in Charleston," said Faust, "and it's difficult to say they can't develop property according to their property rights because I'm a big supporter of that. ... But still, when you have this many people opposed to it, it's not in harmony in keeping with the neighborhood.”
Faust and White cast the two votes against the project. White said he wanted to see the building address Broad Street more closely, while Faust said he thought the design just needs more work. “I felt like deferral means the project is 80 percent OK and just needs minor tweaking, and I don't think that this project is there.”
Wednesday's meeting was moved to Burke High School's auditorium to accommodate the large crowd expected, and a few hundred turned out. More than 30 spoke, all but a few in opposition.
Kristopher King, executive director of the Preservation Society, spoke first and set the tone. “At 214 feet tall, the proposal would be the tallest building in the city of Charleston,” he said. “It would alter the Charleston skyline... This project is simply too much and too big for this area.
Charles “Pete” Wyrick, who lives about a block from the site, said he had a chance to see many inappropriate projects during his tenure as chair of the BAR, “and that's my feeling about this current project. It is just inappropriate.”
Another former BAR chair, Charles Duell, urged the board to reject the plan instead of merely deferring it. “I've got to say that this application, of all that I've ever seen, is probably the most inappropriate.”
Margaret Garrett, who lives a few blocks away, critiqued the controversial 20th century land deal that allowed this former public commons to be developed in the 1940s and suggested landscaping — more than 50 percent of the site will be left as open space — would only soften the building so much. “The architect can say the word 'lush' 500 times and the lushness of his phrase is not going to hid the massiveness,” she said.
Even two mayoral candidates joined in. Former City Councilman Paul Tinkler said, “If we lose the brand of the historic district, we don't have Charleston as we know it and love it.” Another candidate, Ginny Deerin, attended, and her campaign manager released a statement saying the proposal “is a bad deal for the city. It is incompatible with the surrounding neighborhood and will worsen traffic.”
The Beach Co. and Antunovich were not given a specific suggestion regarding how far to lower the design, and they are expected to take at least a month to revise their plan before returning to the board.
Meanwhile, the city's Planning Commission is expected to review downtown height limits at a special meeting Monday. That review is expected to look at the controversial 3X zoning of the Jasper site at 310 and 322 Broad — a zoning that allows 3 feet of height for every foot a building is set back from the street.
But even if the commission votes to revise the height limits, it's unclear if City Council will go along. And even if the city were to make the changes, The Beach Co. would have a legal case that its proposed Jasper project is far enough along to be considered “vested,” giving it a legal right to proceed under the current height limits.
It's unclear if a new revision will satisfy most opponents. Former BAR Chairman Sandy Logan didn't speak Wednesday but was displeased with the result and disputed the idea that simply lowering the tower would make the building better. “If you cut down the highest of the towers, then the mass becomes even larger,” he said.
In addition to lowering the tallest portion from 18 stories to something less, City Architect Dennis Dowd also urged the architect to restudy plans for a drop-off and parking area along Broad Street, which he said was too suburban. He also encouraged moving the main entrance from the southern facade to the eastern one and to consider a garden wall along the northern edge.
After the BAR vote, The Beach Co. released a statement saying it looks forward to continuing the discussion. CEO John Darby said, “I'm confident in the capabilities of our design team and the plan we've created to improve the Sergeant Jasper site. The Jasper will feature high-quality Charleston architecture and will be a positive addition to this special part of the peninsula.”
Even if a lower version of the Jasper project gets approved, it is unlikely to set a precedent for any new construction, said Tim Keane, the city's director of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability.
“This is a unique situation. We don't have property like this in the city,” he said. “It's not a conversation we're going to replicate throughout downtown.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story had incorrect attribution of a quote beginning, “The applicants are wonderful community leaders.” It was said by BAR member Bob Faust.