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Wall at a historic Charleston church could mend fences in rooftop bar dispute

The Dewberry

The Dewberry is proposing to help repair a containment wall at the historic Second Presbyterian Church across from the Meeting Street hotel to settle a legal dispute with the city. Brad Nettles/Staff

Well before it served its first citrus-inspired cocktail, The Dewberry's rooftop bar was mixing it up with local government officials.

For about six years, the owners of the high-profile mid-century-style hotel and the city of Charleston have argued over whether the eighth-floor venue should have been allowed.

Now, a resolution could be in the works.

And the key part of that proposal — an offer to help repair a failing containment wall at the historic Second Presbyterian Church across the street — could resolve another longstanding question in the neighborhood.

When plans for The Dewberry were approved by Charleston's zoning board in 2011, the top floor of the former 1960s-era federal building showed plans for a pool, spa and fitness center.

But by the time the hotel was ready to open several years later, plans had changed. The top floor was outfitted for an event venue and cocktail bar with an open-air terrace. The city told the hotel it couldn't open its bar since that wasn't in the original plans. 

When The Dewberry submitted a request in early 2017 to modify the plans to include a rooftop bar use, the city's zoning board said no, citing concerns about noise from the residents of the Mazyck-Wraggborough neighborhood.

The Dewberry challenged that denial in court, and, in December 2017, a judge ruled in the hotel’s favor, prompting the city to file an appeal.

Meantime, the disputed bar, called The Citrus Club, opened in mid-2018, after it was allowed to operate while the case worked its way through the legal system. Since then, the venue has served up daiquiris and Mai Tais and oysters on the half-shell to tourists and locals from what it's described as the "highest rooftop in Charleston." Court documents say the watering hole is about 100 feet above street level.

Then, in October 2021, nearly four years after the lower court ruling, the S.C. Court of Appeals issued a decision that gave the city the upper hand: It ruled that the zoning board did have the authority to deny the request. 

By that time, the Citrus Club and the top floor Rivers Room event venue had been open for three years, and the bar had accumulated some favorable publicity, including a 2020 James Beard nod for "outstanding design."

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The Dewberry and the city of Charleston are locked in a longstanding legal dispute over the luxury hotel's rooftop Citrus Club (above). A settlement has been proposed. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The Dewberry was aiming to keep them open. It asked the Court of Appeals for a rehearing but was turned away. Then it took its case to the S.C. Supreme Court in December. No notable updates have been added to the case docket over the past five months.

But at its Tuesday meeting, City Council was told during a closed-door session about a possible out-of-court resolution to the dispute. While those talks were private because they involved a legal matter, earlier public comments shed some light on what the hotel was offering.

The Dewberry

The failing containment wall at the historic Second Presbyterian Church in Charleston dates back to the Civil War. A plan is in the works to possibly fix it. Brad Nettles/Staff

Mending fences

Patterson Smith, treasurer at Second Presbyterian Church, which was founded in 1809 and is right across the street from The Dewberry, spoke about an aging brick wall that runs down Charlotte Street and surrounds the church's historic graveyard.

"The wall has been failing for many, many, many years," he said.

He described the situation as a "public safety hazard."

"I'm here because I understand that there is some potential agreement between the city of Charleston and the adjacent property owner, and it may help to find the funds necessary to repair this wall," Smith said at last week's meeting.

The Rev. Cress Darwin, pastor of Second Presbyterian, described the moment as an opportunity to address a longstanding problem.

"With the discussions that are going on now with the city and with the Dewberry Hotel, there may be an opportunity for this to be fixed," he told council.

Darwin asked elected officials to "really consider allowing that to happen."

Two representatives of The Dewberry, including general manager Kristie Rasheed, also addressed council. Rasheed said that, as a leader of the luxury lodging, one of her top priorities has been to "protect our city and be a good neighbor."

"My hope is that the city can find comfort in the mindfulness of the hotel operation and trust this will continue," Rasheed said.

The Dewberry's attorney, Trenholm Walker, asked the city to "seriously consider" the settlement proposal.

"I don't think the goal here of the city is to close down the eighth floor," Walker said, referring to the hotel level that houses the bar and event space. "I think there are other goals, and there are common goals."

If a deal is struck, Walker noted, the appeals courts ruling about the zoning board's authority would still stand.

He told council that the hotel and the city would be working "over the next several weeks" to work out the details of what a repair project would look like, including the scope and timeline.

"I also want to point out that there is no hard agreement," Walker said. "We hope to get that when we work out all the details."

In the end, council voted to "authorize legal counsel to move forward with negotiations in anticipation of a settlement" that would be acceptable to the city and the Mazyck-Wraggborough Neighborhood Association.

“From the start, this issue has been about protecting and preserving neighborhood quality of life. Currently, city attorneys are working with residents and other affected parties to reach a resolution that fully addresses those concerns," city spokesman Jack O’Toole said in a statement.

The Dewberry declined to comment further last week.

The Dewberry

A containment wall at the historic Second Presbyterian Church across from The Dewberry hotel on Meeting Street is failing. Brad Nettles/Staff

Not if, when

When the pastor of Second Presbyterian recently learned that help from The Dewberry to fix the wall could be on the table as part of a settlement offer, he was hopeful.

"People are looking for solutions," Darwin said. "That's exciting."

The issue of fixing the wall has been at an impasse for years. There has never been agreement about who legally owns the structure, so it's been unclear who should take up the complicated and costly task of repairing it.

The wall is believed to have been built around the time of the Civil War. Earth around the site, which is a high point on Charleston's low-lying peninsula, was excavated, and the wall was built around the church's graveyard which is elevated from the street level. Over the many years since its construction, that brick barrier has become more and more strained. 

The need for repairs well predates Darwin's 17 or so years at the church, but, over that time he's seen it change for the worse. There are more gaps in the bricks where sunlight shines through, and the lean and bulge of the wall has become more extreme.

The wall will fail, Darwin said. 

"It's not a matter of if, it's when," he said. 

But without resources to fix it or agreement on who's responsible for fixing it, the issue has languished until now.

On Friday morning, Darwin stood at Charlotte and Elizabeth streets, taking a long look from that corner at the brick wall's severe lean.

"It's going to get done," he proclaimed. "It's going to get done because it needs to get done."

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Reach Emily Williams at 843-607-0894. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

Emily Williams is a business reporter at The Post and Courier, covering tourism and aerospace. She also writes the Business Headlines newsletter and co-hosts the weekly news podcast Understand SC.