For a city well known for heated battles over architecture and new hotels, the most recent project at one of Charleston's most visible and historic parcels has so far been met with remarkable calm.
On Wednesday, the city's Board of Architectural Review-Large will consider Lowe Enterprises' design plans for a new hotel at 176 Concord St., the former State Ports Authority office building just north of Waterfront Park. The board will look at the height, scale, mass, materials and general architectural direction.
And while the details will be under sharp scrutiny given the project's sheer size and prominent location, the overall concept is widely expected to receive a warm welcome.
Winslow Hastie of the Historic Charleston Foundation and others cited many reasons why, including the project's plans for public space along the water's edge.
"We’ve been very critical of all this hotel development, but we do think that’s a particularly good location for that," Hastie said. "All hotel developers like to say their project will be a gift to the community, and I sort of roll my eyes, but in this case, this will be a place where locals will go."
Kristopher King of the Preservation Society of Charleston said the hotel site is both incredibly challenging and an incredible opportunity.
"It is so public, it is so visible," he said. "We think the conceptual design has started in a really good direction, but as we know, the devil is in the details. Really, it’s going to be watching this as it moves forward to make sure the details and particularly the materials are of the highest quality. And I think if they’re able to do that, we’re going to have a pretty nice end result."
A walk in the park?
Perhaps one reason why the hotel project has been more widely accepted than others downtown is because of its plans to include a major public amenity. The developer has applied for permission to fill in some wetlands along the property's edge to extend Waterfront Park northward by about 400 feet.
For decades, city leaders have embraced a vision of public access along the water's edge on the peninsula, from the Columbus Street port terminal to The Citadel's campus.
The planned hotel would realize an important piece of that vision and would set the tone for the eventual redevelopment of the Ports Authority's Union Pier property to the north, Hastie said.
"It's going to be the knuckle, the connective tissue between Waterfront Park and whenever the Union Pier development occurs," he said.
Jacob Lindsey, Charleston's director of planning, preservation and sustainability, said the city is optimistic the developer will get approval to fill in the wetlands to create the park extension as planned.
"We believe it’s a legitimate request and one that is beneficial to the city and the state of South Carolina, frankly," he said.
Aside from the hotel's waterfront and Union Pier, the city already is working on one of the last links: the Ashley River Walk project to connect the City Marina northward along the Ashley River, underneath the U.S. Highway 17 bridges, to Brittlebank Park.
But public amenities or not, no project is perfect when it arrives at the Board of Architectural Review. Both King and Hastie noted the hotel has no back side: All four sides will be very visible and must look good.
"I think they’ve done a very good job of detailing the building accordingly," King added. "That being said, I do believe that the Concord Street elevation, as they move forward, could use some continued study and bringing it up to par with the other three."
Gerry Schauer and John Marshland, the former and current president of the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association, agreed that Lowe Enterprises has done a thoughtful and respectful job of talking with their group.
"I did not sense opposition from the neighborhood association, and we appreciate the ongoing dialogue," Schauer said.
Randy Pelzer of the Charles Towne Neighborhood Association, said the group hasn't reviewed the final plans to be presented Wednesday, but it also appreciates the developer's communication so far.
"Our association likes the fact that the riverwalk promenade will be continued up from waterfront park and the general opening to the public on the waterfront side," he said, adding the main frustration is the city's unwillingness to take new steps to limit hotel growth in general.
Susan Bass of the French Quarter Neighborhood Association said it also supports the project's direction.
"We very much appreciate the Lowe’s folks efforts to communicate not only with us but also and especially with the Concord condo residents," she said. "The move of the roof top bar toward the fountain was also appreciated."
Why this is different
The early reception for the Lowe Enterprises' hotel seems to be a mirror opposite of the angst and hostility that met the Hotel Bennett project on Marion Square or The Beach Company's plans for its Sergeant Jasper site at the southwestern tip of the peninsula.
Some credit that to early civic outreach done by Lowe Enterprises' team, which — like The Beach Company — held numerous meetings with neighborhood and preservation groups.
"They’ve been all ears, very receptive to feedback," Hastie said. "You can tell when somebody who is just going through the motions and checking the box and a team that’s really listening. And we feel that’s been the case.”
Lindsey said Lowe's team "did a phenomenal job with engaging the neighborhood, the public and all the citizens in their design process. It’s very rare that a developer contributes this much to the public."
Dan Battista, Lowe Enterprise’s senior vice president of development in Charleston, said the company engaged several neighborhood groups and other groups after it acquired the site for $38 million earlier this year.
"We're grateful for their valuable insight and involvement as we seek to create a destination that embraces the Charleston community and its visitors.”
But the reception also likely reflects the public acceptance of the underlying zoning: Both the Hotel Bennett and Jasper projects became controversial largely because preservationists and neighborhoods were unhappy with the proposed building heights allowed by the city on those sites.
That wasn't the case on Concord Street, and the developer was able to address most concerns before they had a chance to make news.
"Staying out ahead of it and meeting with the stakeholders and incorporating their concerns and thoughts into the development phase, I think what you’re seeing here is that it can yield results that also benefit the developer," King said. "It’s proven that if you go about the conversation the right way, you can end up with projects that are good developments and also good community projects."