It was tall order, but hotel tower wins out in court

The S.C. Supreme Court has paved the way for a developer to construct a hotel tower at the former library on King Street.

The state Supreme Court paved the way Wednesday for a hotel tower to be built next to Marion Square in downtown Charleston, turning back preservationists who had sued over the height of the proposed structure.

The 3-2 decision reversed a lower court’s ruling years ago that Charleston illegally rezoned the former Charleston County library property in 2007 to accommodate plans for the eight-story lodging.

The project has been stalled since the plans were first announced in 2004, as historical groups have fought to stop it, mainly because of its height and scale.

The developer, Michael Bennett, said Wednesday he was pleased with the high court’s decision.

“We’re going to dust off plans and see where we go forward from here,” he said.

Bennett’s Library Associates LLC, the city of Charleston and City Council appealed the lower court decision together.

Bennett has said the size of the building was driven largely by its design as a full-service hotel, complete with a ballroom, meeting space, restaurants and shops.

The Historic Charleston Foundation and the Preservation Society of Charleston have argued that the proposed 105-foot-tall structure, while shorter than the Francis Marion Hotel down the street, would tower over nearby 18th and 19th century buildings.

Mayor Joe Riley applauded Wednesday’s ruling, calling the hotel project a vital piece of redevelopment for the area.

“This building has been there in that condition, as you can see it is something of an eyesore,” Riley said. “Now it can be developed, and we are very happy about that.”

The decision was not unanimous. Acting Justice Alexander S. Macaulay concurred with a written dissent from Justice Kaye Hearn, who said the hotel zoning was illegal.

“In my opinion, the majority gives short shrift to the history of historic preservation in the City of Charleston and the Upper King Street neighborhood, thereby ignoring the City’s steady march away from excessively permissive height designations and toward zoning classifications that are in accord with its uniquely historic fabric,” Hearn wrote.

Representatives for the Historic Charleston Foundation and the Preservation Society of Charleston could not be reached for comment.

Bennett is owner of Bennett Hospitality, a Charleston-based company that owns several Hilton, Marriott and Embassy Suites properties in the region. He and business partner Hank Hofford bought the old library and some surrounding property from Charleston County for $3.6 million. The building has sat vacant since 1998.

In 2004, Bennett said the $35 million project included tearing down the former library and replacing it with a 185-room hotel, which initially was planned to open as early as 2006 flying the Hilton flag. Plans showed retail space along King Street, a restaurant overlooking Marion Square and 143 underground parking spaces.

The Supreme Court’s decision comes during a boom for the Charleston area’s hotel industry. The area has a roughly 70 percent occupancy rate for the year, and even higher on weekends, said Steve Litvin, professor of hospitality and tourism management at the College of Charleston.

“There is a very strong demand here and this is a good time to add properties,” he said.

After a dearth of activity during the recession, the city’s hotel market has been adding more brick and mortar to meet the recent burgeoning needs.

Several hotels are in various stages of development on the peninsula, including developer John Dewberry’s plans to transform the former Mendel River Federal Building across from Marion Square into lodging.