After months of speculation about what’s planned for an empty parking lot near the City Market — a 150-room hotel has been the most popular theory — project managers are unveiling their plans to neighborhood and historic groups.

In a nutshell, it’s a seven-story, 135-room as-yet-unnamed "grand hotel" on par with a Ritz Carlton, with a dozen upscale condominiums — including a rooftop penthouse — several shops, a restaurant, a public park and covered walkway. The project also calls for three two-story Charleston single houses that are sure to carry a hefty price tag.

If the city approves the deal, it will dramatically change the landscape and move the rapidly changing City Market even more upscale.

"We know hotel rooms are sensitive," Tyler Morris, managing partner with development company Geyer Morris, said last week. "We think this is a different type of hotel. This is truly a mixed-use property."

Morris is working with Somera Capital Management of Atlanta, which bought the parking lot near the sheds and horse stables from First Baptist Church in 2013. The owner is listed as SCM Charleston Market Investors LLC, a Somera subsidiary.

The hotel, shops and residences are being designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects of New York. It's the same architecture firm for the Courier Square, a mixed-use project at Meeting and Columbus streets on land owned by the parent company of The Post and Courier. 

Stern also designed the recently opened Four Seasons hotel and luxury condos at 30 Park Place in New York City. The 82-story building includes 185 guest rooms and a 3,700-square-foot "royal suite," Wolfgang Puck’s CUT restaurant and 157 condos, including a six-bedroom unit that’s listed for $32 million.

'Very top-level'

Dan Lobitz, a partner with the architectural firm, describes the Charleston project as a "very, very top-level hotel," on par with a Four Seasons or a Ritz Carlton. With Charleston’s increasing stature, he said he’s surprised the city doesn’t have more big five-star hotels.

A "grand hotel" that towers above adjacent buildings is not without precedent in Charleston, according to Gary Brewer, also a partner with Stern. He cited the Mills House on Meeting Street and the Francis Marion at King and Calhoun as current examples. The Pavilion and The Timrod dominated Meeting Street until they were demolished in the 1960s.

The last big hotel in the Market area was Belmond Charleston Place, which opened in 1986 as The Omni. The 434-room luxury hotel sparked a revitalization of the downtown shopping district. 

"A grand hotel can transform a neighborhood," Brewer said.

That’s what some of the neighbors are afraid of, a little too much New York City for Charleston.

"Many residents and preservation groups are still greatly concerned that Somera Capital and their team are proposing a seventh-floor penthouse before the ink has even dried on the ... height zoning changes, under which these two parcels are described as 3.5 stories," Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association president Gerry Schauer said in an email. "It seems each developer feels their architecture and contribution to the neighborhood and city will merit going beyond the thoughtful and reasonable guidelines and restrictions that are in place to preserve the balance between commercial endeavors and residential quality of life." 

He said the plan differs from the tony hotels near Marion Square, such as the nearly finished Hotel Bennett and the Dewberry Charleston, as well as the high-end lodging to be built on the site of the State Ports Authority offices next to Waterfront Park. Schauer noted that the Somera property "is immediately across the street from a residential and historic neighborhood, not buffered by commercial. Once the approvals are granted and the pile-driving begins, this is a property that will change the gateway to Ansonborough for many generations."

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Print inside - Somera hotel houses at Pinckney and Church

The project includes three Charleston houses on Pinckney Street. This view is looking south down Church Street toward North Market Street. Rendering by Michael McCann for Robert A.M. Stern Architects 

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Print inside - Somera Market hotel site looking down Church

This is a view of the site now, looking south down Church Street toward North Market Street, with the parking lot on the left. Provided/Robert A.M. Stern Architects

The three new houses along Pinckney Street will help provide a transition between the project and the residential neighborhood to the north, Lobitz said. The homes will be privately owned but tied into the hotel’s room service.

The condos on the upper floors will be set back from the edges to reduce the mass, with the seventh-floor penthouse closest to North Market Street.

Plans show shops on Anson Street and a horseshoe driveway on Church Street that will be half as big as the one at Belmond Charleston Place. The sidewalks will be widened to 12 feet, with utility poles removed and trees planted.

Instead of walking through an open parking lot as they do now, pedestrians will walk under a covered arcade beneath the hotel.

Obstacles to approval

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The question is whether  the city would approve such a project. City Council would have to change the zoning to allow the proposed number of rooms and stories.

The parking lot covers a city block bounded by North Market, Pinckney, Church and Anson streets.

It’s actually two parcels, divided in the middle by a pedestrian walkway that’s an extension of Hayne Street between Church and Anson streets. City zoning allows a 50-room hotel on each of the parcels. Rezoning would include the city abandoning the Hayne Street right of way so the parking lot becomes a single parcel.

Then the board of zoning appeals would have to approve a hotel for the site. Under the city's special-exception test, a new hotel must show that the traffic it creates won't significantly impact a residential area.

The current plan would not increase traffic in the nearby neighborhood and would actually reduce traffic on the site, according to Scott Parker with DesignWorks, which is designing the site.

Drivers would exit from an underground parking garage on Church Street and turn left on Pinckney Street toward Meeting Street. They couldn’t turn toward Anson Street to head north into the neighborhood because Anson is one-way in that area.

As far as total traffic, the parking lot generates about 1,000 trips a day during peak tourist season, and the hotel project would generate about 600 trips a day, according to their calculations.

“The hotel would generate 33 percent less traffic than what’s already there,” Parker said.

Schauer of the neighborhood association allowed that the plan addresses the traffic concerns.

"The developer's current plan does attempt to move guest and service traffic to the Church Street side and off Anson Street, which is much appreciated," he said. "We are hopeful the city and the developer will reconsider the balance and produce a plan that is a real win-win."

Reach Dave Munday at 843-937-5553.