Charleston's Historic District, one of the crown jewels of South Carolina's tourism industry, now draws an estimated 6 million visitors each year. About 11 percent of them come from within the Palmetto State.
And they all need to stay somewhere.
While hotel developers have been happy to accommodate the masses, the question now is: How much is too much?
So the city is ready to take a crack — again — at putting some kind of limits on the explosive hotel growth on the Charleston peninsula.
The Planning Commission, citizens who are appointed by City Council to give advice, will consider changes this month to the special-exception test, which are guidelines the zoning board uses to approve or deny projects. It’s on the agenda of a June 21 meeting.
This will be the first time the commission has weighed in on the raging debate. It will start with an amended version of the test that never went to a vote before council because it didn’t have the support to pass.
Whether it can come up with workable solutions this time remains be seen.
Jacob Lindsey, the city's chief planning official, said he won’t make any particular recommendations. He suggested softening some of the language that killed the package the last time.
For instance, the draft that didn't pass doesn't allow a hotel to displace any office space. That's consistent with the goal of not letting tourism change Charleston as a place to live and work. But absolute rules raised hackles.
“Maybe the Planning Commission could recommend a little more discretion rather than the test being so absolute,” Lindsey said.
Case of congestion
Improving traffic flow is a key part of the suggested new guidelines.
"We would expect the Planning Commission to give thoughtful consideration to all the aspects of the special-exception criteria, especially the transportation element, which can certainly be changed and improved," Lindsey said.
The need to improve traffic was a point all the participants of a recent community forum on hotel growth at the Charleston Museum agreed on.
Lindsey pointed out at that meeting, sponsored by Historic Charleston Foundation, that the peninsula is feeling the congestion from the upsurge of visitors — 6 million expected this year, up from 4.2 million in 2011 — because the Historic District is only about 2.5 square miles of narrow streets. Not to mention the fact that it's also surrounded by water on three sides.
“That's not a very big geographical area to distribute a global interest in tourism,” Lindsey said at the forum.
Compare that to the Grand Strand, which draws about 18 million visitors a year but is spread out over more than 50 miles north and south of Myrtle Beach. The number that's reported includes overnight visitors and day trippers.
"Of course traffic can be an issue in any tourist destination," said Taylor Damonte, a professor in Coastal Carolina University's tourism department.
But generally speaking, the Myrtle Beach area has always been geared toward tourists, while Charleston has traditionally been a residential city that is now dealing with an unprecedented influx of overnight guests.
"The dependency of the (Myrtle Beach) area on the hospitality and tourism economy is fresher in the minds of permanent residents," Damonte said.
Columbia has about the same number of visitors as Charleston but in a much bigger metropolitan area with wider streets and no natural coastal boundary. The Capital City reported 5.4 million overnight visitors for 2015, which includes the thousands who pour in for USC Gamecock football games. Hotel occupancy averaged 74.7 percent last year, up from 72 percent in 2015.
Columbia also is seeing development activity. but it's much more restrained compared to the situation in Charleston. The 41-room Hotel Trundle is expected to open this fall on Main Street. A Courtyard Marriott is under construction in Cayce. A Residence Inn is planned for West Columbia and a Home2Suites is coming to the Harbison area.
"Columbia is very much a manageable urban experience," Andrea Mensink, the city's public information officer, said in an email.
Charleston's total annual influx of 6 million tourists averages out to about 16,429 visitors a day, City Councilman Mike Seekings pointed out at last month's community forum. Add to that 17,500 hotel and restaurant workers coming in and out of the Holy City, with most driving alone, and it can create a real congestion problem.
"That's the root of the issue … that movement of people," Seekings said. "We just don't have the capacity."
The amended special-exception test includes several new requirements for hotels, all designed to ease or minimize congestion:
- Ensure drop-off and pick-up points for visitors won't become bottlenecks.
- Provide employees with parking, or give them transit passes or other incentives so fewer will drive to work.
- Require hotels within the city but off the peninsula to provide shuttle service to the Historic District.
The city has released studies showing that hotels generate less traffic than new offices, restaurants or apartments. Yet plans for new lodgings continue to fuel complaints about traffic.
Josh Martin, special adviser to the mayor, who is coordinating a traffic and parking study, said each project has its own particular set of traffic challenges. For instance, Ansonborough residents were concerned some of the hotels in the City Market area would send traffic north on Anson Street through their neighborhood. French Quarter residents complained that hotels were parking cars off site and cutting through their neighborhood with valet service.
"A large part of this study will be based on residents’ concerns and quality of life issues," Martin said. "I think this is one thing everyone downtown can agree on, that we need a parking study."
Martin expects the report to be done by the end of the year. Even though parking is part of the equation when considering new hotels, Lindsey said he expects the Planning Commission to make some recommendations to City Council before the study is finished.
The existing ordinance already specifies that "the location of the facility will not significantly increase automobile traffic on streets within residential neighborhoods." But so far, no hotel has been denied because of traffic concerns. Plans for a proposed hotel in the former Wild Wing Cafe building on North Market Street were put on hold pending another traffic study, but renovation work continues. Also, the developer recently got approval from the city to run a tour bus from the hotel when it opens.
Moratorium talk fading
It was a year ago this month that the city planning department released a study on downtown hotels that included some of the proposals the Planning Commission will consider. At the time, a number of residents were saying too many hotels were being built downtown while also calling for a moratorium.
When that report came out, 4,329 hotel rooms were open on the peninsula, with another 610 under construction and 731 more approved. The city hasn't updated the count since then, but the list has continued to grow.
The hotel boom extends beyond the peninsula. About two dozen new hotels are being built in West Ashley, North Charleston and Mount Pleasant that will bring more vehicles to downtown Charleston.
At last month's forum participants were asked if they favored a moratorium. No one spoke in favor of the idea.
"I don't think a moratorium makes any sense," said attorney Tim Muller, chairman of the Charleston Peninsula Neighborhood Consortium, which represents neighborhood associations.
Now the focus seem to be shifting to what kind of hotels should be built and encouraging more offices, retail shops and residential units in the mix, he said.
“There still is a feeling that there are too many hotels, but I believe the conversation has changed a little bit,” Muller said after the forum.
There's no doubt that the rush to buy up properties for new hotels is raising prices for those wanting to live and work in downtown Charleston, said Chris Price, president of PrimeSouth, a commercial real estate firm that's involved in two dozen projects along upper King Street.
But hotels aren't the only ones to blame, as developers are also scrambling for office and retail space, he said.
"This isn’t all because of the hotels," Price said. "People are coming in trying to squeeze into a two-mile radius. We’ve done a ton of national chains. The retail sector is still on fire. We’re a very successful city, and people want to be here."
He said he agrees with the concerns about an imbalance of real estate uses.
"What we’ve really got to be concerned about is displacing office, retail and residential," he said.
The way to preserve that balance is not a moratorium on hotels but incentives to allow developers to make money with other uses, he said.
"What we need to do as a city is help the private sector do what we want to see the most of right now, which is office, retail and residential," he said.
Remove the cap?
Price also said it's time to reconsider the 50-room limit on hotels in most areas south of the Septima P. Clark Expressway.
"There is a lot of conversation that the cap has harmed Charleston," he said. "It has forced numerous hotels to be spread out, which has made traffic worse. Now we have a bunch of 50-room boutique inns that are very nice, but there’s nothing that’s really special."
Helen Hill, chief executive officer of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, agreed that it's time to lift the cap, which has been in place since the late 1990s.
"One of the challenges we have is the product mix," Hill said at the community forum. "I don't want to see another 50-room boutique hotel."
How many rooms to allow in each part of the peninsula is specified on what's known as an overlay map. That's not a question the Planning Commission will consider this month. But City Council could consider it when it amends the accommodations rules.