Alarming challenge to BAR

A plan to redevelop the site of the 14-story Sergeant Jasper apartment building on Broad Street was rejected by the BAR. The Beach Company has sued the city, claiming the process is unconstitutional.( Leroy Burnell/ 11/29/2010).

The tremendous success that Charleston is enjoying is due in great part to the city’s Board of Architectural Review. Since the 1930s, it has helped sustain the city’s architectural heritage and ensure its tasteful growth.

It has, over the decades, proven its economic value as the city has become a major tourist destination and, more recently, a home to many new residents.

That’s why it is so surprising that the Beach Company, a longtime local developer which has profited greatly from being part of this lovely, authentic and economically vibrant city, is asking the court to declare the ordinance that created the BAR unconstitutional.

The possibility of Charleston’s Board of Architectural Review being struck down is nothing short of staggering. It wouldn’t merely affect the Beach Company project in question, but potentially an array of new construction and historic renovations.

The Beach Company has appeared numerous times over numerous years before the BAR, and has been able to work through the process without challenging its constitutionality. Until now — after the BAR rejected its proposed redevelopment of the Sergeant Jasper apartment building site at Broad and Barre streets.

Some contend the company is just saber-rattling in hopes of getting the city to back down. And, indeed, Mayor Joe Riley’s leaving office after 40 years makes the legal move all the more unnerving. The next mayor might not be so focused as Mr. Riley and his predecessors have been on the appearance of historic Charleston. That long-standing support reflects the broad sentiment of neighborhood associations, preservation groups, the tourism and hospitality industry, and of individuals who love Charleston and want to see its treasured built environment maintained and enhanced.

There are still plenty of old buildings and design elements that need to be saved, and plenty of new construction that will need to be shaped to complement the city.

The sad irony is that this legal offensive is coming not from one of the many out-of-town developers who might want to cash in on Charleston’s popularity and then take their profits back to Charlotte or Los Angeles. The Beach Company is local, and it has been in business for generations. The company’s owners and officers are surely aware of the BAR’s value, despite their frustration over this project.

The company claims that the BAR acted in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner when it voted 3-2 to reject plans for a high-density development of 80 luxury residences and 118,000 square feet of office and retail space — all wrapped around a parking garage with 592 spaces.

The BAR disapproved of the project’s height, scale and mass — as did most of the 250 people who attended the meeting.

Instead of going back to the drawing board, the Beach Company opted to appeal the decision and enter mediation with the city of Charleston and the BAR. That attempt failed to reach a mutually acceptable plan.

Neighbors and preservationists all along have remained confident that the Beach Company could come up with a suitable substitute.

Company officials, who say they are committed to building a world-class development on the site, would do well to abandon this ill-considered lawsuit and redouble their efforts toward a friendly resolution. They can expect that the process ultimately will yield a compromise. As it always has.

Undermining the authority of the BAR would damage the city where Beach Company officials expect to continue building and investing.

And if the company persists in its lawsuit, the city of Charleston should vigorously defend its Board of Architectural Review — for the good of the city.