On June 3, the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) denied the latest plans for the site of the now-vacant Sergeant Jasper apartment building. It was a victory for preservationists, residents and visitors who appreciate Charleston’s irreplaceable skyline and historic residential neighborhoods.
But what did we learn from the experience? Does the struggle over the future of the Jasper site hold any special significance, or is it just the latest round of an endless battle between preservationists and developers? I would argue that the BAR decision demonstrated an alarming trend in the nature of proposed projects in the historic district, a fresh wave of public involvement in the preservation movement, and confirmation of the BAR’s vital role in the future of Charleston.
First, let’s consider what was proposed for the Jasper site. Earlier this year, a plan was submitted for an enormous multi-use property that would include hundreds of apartment homes, a parking garage, and a 35,000-square-foot grocery store. The developer withdrew the plan after facing overwhelming community opposition. A second plan, featuring an 18-story tower, was presented to the BAR and subsequently deferred due its unprecedented height. Then came a third plan that reduced the tower’s height but added scale and remained completely out of character for its location. This plan was denied, and rightly so, ending a months-long saga and sending the developer back to the drawing board. The level of disregard for the zoning ordinance, existing city plans and the character of the historic district was disappointing and certain to reoccur as the city experiences transformational growth and investment.
Secondly, the public reaction to these proposals was nothing short of astonishing. Opposition to the first Jasper plan drew overflow crowds that led to the postponement of a Planning Commission meeting. Subsequent meetings saw hundreds of attendees from all across Charleston advocating for smart, sane development. At the Preservation Society of Charleston, our inboxes and voicemail have been filled with the passionate input of residents, visitors and preservation enthusiasts from around the country. The notion that dedication to Charleston’s unique and irreplaceable neighborhoods is limited to those who reside there is resoundingly false. That was proven in recent weeks, and I believe this new wave of public involvement will only grow.
Finally, I must acknowledge the members of the BAR for not only denying an inappropriate project but in doing so, defending the institution itself. The Jasper project seemed to be designed to apply pressure to the BAR to see if its members would flinch. If they had, a dangerous precedent would be set that might have threatened the very survival of the BAR itself. Instead, the BAR asserted its rightful and historic role of ensuring a public, transparent and even-handed process designed to allow a community to govern its physical growth. The first of its kind in the nation, our BAR is a model for preservationists around the world. On June 3, it lived up to that lofty mantle.
As the dust settles from the Jasper decision, we’re painfully aware that more bad ideas are on their way. Charleston has become the target of enormous outside investment and energy. Not all of that investment is bad, of course, and we’re delighted at many of the benefits that come with our city’s prosperity. But make no mistake — more tone-deaf proposals are in the works and the pressure to approve tem will mount. The good news is that more of us oppose those bad ideas than ever before. And the BAR, one of the most important institutions we have in historic preservation, stands strong. I believe that its decision means something. I see it as a turning point that unites residents, visitors, nonprofit organizations and preservationists everywhere. There will be more bad ideas. But I politely request that the city find bigger rooms in which to discuss them. Because we plan to be there each and every time.
Kristopher King is executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston.