Just as the city's top planning official says Charleston has reached the "tipping point" for downtown hotel development, a new city-organized working group is digging into the task of overhauling regulations for lodgings on the peninsula.
The new task force, which met for the first time Friday, has little time to waste. It's expected to bring a proposal to City Council by the end of this month.
Mayor John Tecklenburg announced plans to assemble the group after the most recent Council meeting. It has 11 members and two advisory participants.
Voting members include representatives from the visitor industry, neighborhood groups and preservation organizations. City Council members Mike Seekings, Gary White and William Dudley Gregorie are also members.
Based on the number of hotel rooms already on the peninsula — around 4,900 — and those that are planned, city planning director Jacob Lindsey told the task force that the city is at a critical point for hotel development.
When asked how he defined "tipping point," Lindsey said he's referencing the ratio of guest rooms to residents and the "feel" of the environment downtown.
According to his estimates, another 2,578 hotel rooms are in the pipeline. If built, they would increase the peninsula's ratio of 13.2 rooms per 100 residents to about 20 rooms per 100 residents, Lindsey said.
Task force member Jim Palassis of Palas Hospitality, which owns the Market Pavilion hotel at East Bay and Market streets, said he thought that estimate seemed low.
Most of the nearly 2,600 proposed rooms have already secured approvals from the Board of Zoning Appeals. About 365 have not been approved yet, but the planning department expects they will be.
The zoning board's chair, Leonard Krawcheck, who is working with the task force in an advisory capacity, told the group about his recent experiences reviewing hotels.
Unlike other applications, Krawcheck said, hotel reviews have become a "rubber stamp" process, he said.
"If a hotel project is on a main thoroughfare," Krawcheck said, "there's no way to turn it down."
The board is required to make decisions based on the city's ordinance, he said, and the rules lay out specific criteria a project must meet. But for projects on major downtown streets, Krawcheck said, it's almost guaranteed that a hotel project will check all of the boxes.
Most of the other items in the ordinance are not categorized as criteria. Rather, the board is told to "consider" them and can't reject a hotel based on those factors alone.
Changing the ordinance to make those considerations actual criteria would "certainly help," Krawcheck said.
Winslow Hastie of Historic Charleston Foundation said his organization "super nervous" about the part of the ordinance that allows proposed "full service" hotels to build an unlimited number of rooms. Hastie said that 50-room lodgings "scale better with our city."
But Explore Charleston deputy director Perrin Lawson said the city needs a "diversity of uses within the hotel community" that wouldn't be addressed by limiting hotels to smaller, boutique properties.
"What we need is some full service," said Lawson, who was sitting in for Explore Charleston CEO Helen Hill.
Tecklenburg asked that all the task force members take copies of the accommodations ordinance and bring their suggestions to the next meeting.
Seekings asked the group to review the city's accommodations zones "parcel by parcel" to evaluate where different types of hotels might work well or not be suitable.
The so-called overlay designates where hotels can be built. It's primarily on the peninsula, but there are also overlays along Highway 17 in West Ashley and on Daniel Island. The task force is focusing its attention downtown.
Tecklenburg suggested that it might be possible to combine both ideas, rewriting parts of the rules to better "empower" the zoning board and also making changes to the overlay zone.
The group plans to meet again Thursday at 11 a.m. in the City Council Chambers at 80 Broad St.