A roughly 30-acre development on state-owned land along Mount Pleasant's waterfront got an initial OK this week, but the developer's request to build taller buildings on the site was voted down.
Mount Pleasant's Planning Commission voted on the Patriots Annex plan Wednesday after more than two hours of review and discussion with the developer, Michael Bennett of Charleston-based Bennett Hospitality.
In all, the development is slated to include about 500 hotel rooms, 130 residences and thousands of square feet of retail, restaurant and office space.
The plans also include a new building for the Patriots Point Development Authority with upstairs office space and a new ticketing area. The first floor may also eventually serve as a museum space for the Hunley, the Confederate submarine currently kept in North Charleston.
Commissioners had to vote on several items: a request to rezone the property, a proposed increase to a maximum building height of 80 feet and the overall concept submitted to the town.
They agreed that the rezoning was appropriate, in part because that district has particularly detailed requirements aimed at ensuring the best public access to waterfront areas.
As the museum site is now, the waterfront around the Yorktown aircraft carrier is only accessible to paying customers. Visitors have to pass a kiosk to enter a surface parking lot, which also charges a fee.
With the Patriots Annex plan, that area would be accessible to the public, said Gary Collins of SeamonWhiteside, the Mount Pleasant-based civil engineering firm working on the project.
"You're getting access to one of the greatest resources we have in the city," Collins said.
Several commission members expressed concerns about increasing the height limit, which currently is capped at 50 feet.
Bennett said that he only planned to have a few buildings go to 80 feet. He would build structures of varying heights, he said, with the tallest set the farthest back from the waterfront. That would allow him to "create a more beautiful plan," and provide more green space, he said.
As some commission members pointed out, approval would allow a developer on that property to build up to 80 feet on any part of the land.
Bennett and his land planners said 80 feet was the "precedent" set in that area of town since there are neighboring parcels, including the Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina at Patriots Point and Bennett’s nearby Ferry Wharf development, that already go up to 80 feet.
The commission rejected the argument, voting 6-1 against the proposed increase.
Building height was also a sticking point last year at Patriots Point when plans for a Medal of Honor Museum were submitted. Organizers of that project initially sought a 120-foot height allowance but were denied.
Later design alternatives proposed heights of 100 or 70 feet, but those plans were never formally resubmitted. The museum group announced last fall it was looking for new locations and recently said it would be building in either Denver or Arlington, Texas.
The Planning Commission's decisions are recommendations, which Mount Pleasant's town council can choose to follow or reject.
Larry Murray, a former S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles director who recently took over as the maritime museum's top leader, spoke on behalf of the project Wednesday.
Murray reminded the commission that Patriots Point "has to pay its own bills." Although the museum and the surrounding properties are state-owned, the museum doesn't receive money annually from the state.
Funds for museum operations and the millions needed to maintain its three historic military vessels come from admission, parking fees, other sales and the rent paid by tenants on Patriots Point property.
The Patriots Point Development Authority has held up Bennett's development as the maritime museum's most important opportunity to secure its financial future.
According to a master plan approved earlier this year, each building on the site has a set percentage of revenue that would go to Patriots Point, such as 10 percent of parking income.