400 Meeting St. design fuels debate Building hints at complexity of city’s architectural crossroads

Pedestrians passing by 400 Meeting St. will find warm, familiar brick interspersed with Nichiha panels of varying shades of gray, not unlike what’s found on some city sidewalks.

The new apartment building at 400 Meeting St. has been cited as one of the city’s worst new buildings, a prime example of what’s wrong with Charleston’s new architecture.

Is that fair?

A deeper understanding of how it came to be provides some important insight, especially as the city begins its soul-searching for ways to encourage better buildings downtown.

The city and Historic Charleston foundation have hired nationally known town planner and architect Andres Duany, a longtime friend of Mayor Joe Riley, to spend six months reviewing the process by which the city approves new architecture in its historic district.

Few are as familiar with that process as architect Eddie Bello, who previously served as the city architect, the city’s top staffer to the Board of Architectural Review.

And 400 Meeting St. happens to be one of the first designs that Bello did after leaving his city job to return to private practice with the firm of McMillan Pazdan-Smith Architecture.

Listen to Bello talk about 400 Meeting, and it’s clear the city’s challenge extends far beyond the talent and creativity of its architects. It also has a lot to do with budgets, practical considerations and honest creative differences that will likely forever remain difficult territory for zoning boards.

One thing 400 Meeting St. is justifiably criticized for is its relatively dead presence on Meeting Street. Pedestrians walking by it have little to look at or do with it, unless they live there or are visiting someone who does.

It would have been nice to have retail on the first floor, but that was not in the developer’s program, which included only 41 units of student housing.

This is the same issue that plagued East Central Lofts on Huger Street, which left room for retail on the first floor but whose owners still are waiting for the market to signal when businesses will be willing to finish off that space and move in.

The 400 Meeting building also might seem foreign to some, but Bello notes there is little historical context on this stretch of Meeting Street, so the design could have a freer hand, unlike the rich context of Bello’s new design at 174 Meeting about a mile to the south.

And his 400 Meeting design does break up the building into a series of several smaller buildings instead of one big box, which would have been cheaper.

Also, those smaller building sections are further broken down with use of both brick and Nichiha, a fiber cement board that looks a little metallic. The Nichiha panels are in three shades of gray, sort of resembling the look of the city’s slate sidewalks.

“You see that all over,” Bello says of the color pattern. “It wasn’t trying to be bold.”

And the design does cast a friendlier face toward South Street, where a lower, more traditional apartment building stands. Only the wooden screening (made of Ipe, an exotic hardwood), some steel framing details and shared interior parking lot hint that the buildings are in the same complex.

While the brick is a friendly material, it’s not as elegant as the cast stone used on other new construction along Meeting. But that raises the sticky question of to what extent an architect, or the city officials who review his or her work, can move the budget.

Bello is proud the complex has four entrances off Meeting, though some are locked.

Perhaps the unfriendliest stretch is along Reid Street, where a security fence meets the sidewalk with two bright “Do Not Enter” signs, as the project transitions into the East Side neighborhood. Are 21st-century security concerns making it impossible to continue the city’s mannerly, hospitable traditions?

But the most challenging notion is that the building is trying to do something different, unlike the Kelly House at Vanderhorst and St. Philip streets, a comparable, developer-driven project to house college students.

The Kelly House drew little to no criticism when it went up more than a decade ago, but to what extent should blandness be considered a virtue?

“If you do a building that’s not familiar, there will be people who are uncomfortable,” Bello says. “That doesn’t bother me. I’m not interested in doing a background building. There was a lot of thought that went into this. We didn’t just slap something up.”

The ultimate answer to the question about the quality of this building’s architecture won’t be rendered for many, many more years, not until its owner decides if it is worth the additional investment necessary to preserve it or whether everyone would simply be happier if it were torn down and replaced with something else.

I’d bet on the former.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.