Charleston's BAR

The city of Charleston is proposing major revisions to its height limits for new buildings on the peninsula. Grace Beahm/Staff/File

Just like any building that has stood for more than 85 years, Charleston's Board of Architectural Review may be due for some refurbishment.

And the city is poised to do just that, as a consultant has proposed extensive revisions to rules that govern the height of new buildings on the peninsula. City Council, board members and others learned about those changes during a two-hour work session Thursday at the Charleston Museum.

The changes are part of a larger rethinking of the city's BAR, originally created in 1931 to protect the city's historic character and charm.

That rethinking began in 2015, when then-Mayor Joe Riley brought Miami architect and urban planner Andres Duany to Charleston to offer a critique of its recent buildings and to suggest ways that the city could get better ones. One of Duany's recommendations — splitting the BAR in two and creating a BAR-L for larger projects and a BAR-S for homes and other small work — already has been done.

The most recent round of changes addresses a new concern. While the BAR for years has reviewed a new building's height, scale and mass, a different part of the city's zoning ordinance has set height limits. Last year, a judge ruled the BAR overstepped when rejecting a proposed building at the Sergeant Jasper site for being too tall when it met the city's height limit.

While that order was withdrawn as part of a negotiated settlement, it still casts a cloud over the BAR's power to adjust a building's height. Mayor John Tecklenburg put it this way Thursday: "We had a little legal matter last year with the Sergeant Jasper, and it accentuated the need for some reform to the BAR and the ordinance that guides it.”

Duany had criticized the city's approach even before the ruling, arguing it would be better to regulate the number of building stories rather than set a specific height limit in feet. He noted the latter approach would encourage buildings with shorter ceilings, which runs counter to both the city's warm climate and its architectural traditions.

Marina Khoury of Duany's firm, DPZ Partners, made Thursday's main presentation and explained how the shift to stories rather than feet would work. “We're not worrying about a foot here or a foot there," she said. "We think it’s more important to worry about how generous building floors can be.”

The proposed changes, like the city's current height zones, are complex. The peninsula currently has 14 height districts that would be consolidated into 10 new districts with new rules. Khoury said most parts of the city would see little difference in the amount of height allowed, though some would see a little more height allowed.

"In very few cases, you’re getting slightly less in terms of the height you can get to," she said.

Generally speaking, the changes would:

  • Continue the city's height approach with lower buildings along the waterfront, rising upward closer to King and Meeting streets.
  • Allow buildings to exceed the height limit by up to 6 feet if they are required to be raised because of federal flood rules.
  • Remove any minimum height rules for building downtown. "Let the price of the land determine if someone wants to build a one-story building," Khoury said. "There are a lot of great one-story buildings in your historic district.”
  • Limit the height of new homes in some areas based on the width of the street and sidewalks outside its front door: the wider the right of way, the taller the new house could be.
  • Provide additional limits for properties within 50 feet of buildings that the city has deemed as having "exceptional" or "excellent" architectural merit.
  • Create special districts for the city's hospital district, emerging WestEdge development, the Columbus Street terminal property, Laurel Island, as well as The Citadel's and College of Charleston campuses that would be left alone for the time being.
  • Give the BAR the ability to grant some additional height in certain cases, based on architectural merit.

Khoury took questions afterward, and those seemed to indicate a tentative support for the changes.

BAR-L member and architect Jay White said the conversion of height limits from feet to stories “is entirely logical. It may take some time to vet it in terms of a block-by-block analysis.”

Tecklenburg said afterward he was encouraged by the reaction so far. "I like it. I'll put it that way," he said. "Long term, I think it will lead to more richness and diversity in our architecture."

Thursday's presentation was only the beginning. The proposed changes ultimately will go before City Council for initial approval Tuesday, then to the city's Planning Commission. City Council could take a final vote after that but probably not before March, Tecklenburg said.

City Planning Director Jacob Lindsey said the city will hold more meetings and workshops, and he noted the boundaries of the proposed height districts could get revised.

"They are not finalized. I don’t want anyone to get the impression that this is it," he said. "We want to have robust discussions with all the stakeholders before we move forward.”


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Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771 or via Twitter @RobertFBehre.

Robert Behre works as an editor and reporter. He focuses on the historical landscape, including architecture, archaeology and whatever piques his interest on a particular day.