Downtown Charleston is becoming alarmingly congested mainly because the city has no good way to move 6 million visitors a year in and out of an area that’s only two square miles.
That was the consensus of a panel of community leaders who gathered at the Charleston Museum Monday night to discuss “Boom, Bust or Balance? Hotel Development on the Peninsula.”
Charleston's Historic District, the city's main attraction, is only two square miles.
"That's not a very big geographical area to distribute a global interest in tourism,” City Planning Director Jacob Lindsey said.
Charleston drew about 6 million visitors last year. That's about 16,429 visitors a day, Councilman Mike Seekings pointed out. Add to that 17,500 hospitality workers, most of whom drive alone, and you've got some serious congestion problems.
"That's the root of the issue … that movement of people," Seekings said. "We just don't have the capacity. … It's about how we move people, and we're woefully behind."
Several mentioned the Medical University as a good example of a company providing parking for workers. Also, about four dozen restaurants are providing their workers with garage spaces for a small fee, according to Helen Hill, chief executive officer of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, another member of the panel.
The panel also included Dan Battista, senior vice president of Lowe Enterprises, a hotel developer including Wild Dunes; and attorney Tim Muller, chairman of the Charleston Peninsula Neighborhood Consortium, which represents downtown neighborhood associations.
The forum was coordinated by the Historic Charleston Foundation. Past chairman Wilbur Johnson moderated and President and CEO Kitty Robinson made the introduction.
None of the panel members favored a moratorium on hotels, which was a platform of Mayor John Tecklenburg’s election campaign. Instead they all endorsed amending the city’s accommodations ordinance to give the board of zoning appeals more power to deny new hotels if the projects threatened residents' quality of life.
"I am firmly convinced we are at a tipping point, and it is time for us to take action to change the regulations again," Lindsey said.
He pointed out that new hotels are raising property values so much that living on the peninsula is becoming increasingly unaffordable. Seekings noted that about 75,000 people lived in the peninsula in the 1950s, compared to about 20,000 now if you don't count college students.
"That's a huge shift in demographics," he said. "We need to get more people back."
The panel also generally agreed that it might be time to reconsider the 50-room limit on new hotels south of Line Street. The rule has resulted in an abundance of boutique hotels, but it might be time for a more diverse product mix, Hill said.
About 200 audience members submitted questions that will be answered and posted on the foundation’s website within the next couple weeks, Preservation Officer Winslow Hastie said.