“We must always remember that the fates of cities,” wrote the French architect Le Corbusier, “are decided in the Town Hall.” This week, as the Planning Commission prepares to consider the city’s proposed new height districts and the revisions to the BAR ordinance, the fate of Charleston as a city with an incredible array of historic architecture is up for grabs. We implore our city leaders to remove these items from the Planning Commission agenda until we have all had the chance to consider more fully the impacts of these changes.
The city’s efforts to amend the height districts on the peninsula and to modify the authority and process of the BAR constitute an unprecedented threat to the review board that has created and protected Charleston’s international appeal and character. Moreover, the frenetic and hasty process by which the city has undertaken these revisions leaves the people of Charleston, and the preservation community that safeguards the special character of this place, little time to understand and influence what is happening.
First, the process. As a result of the Beach Co. lawsuit against the city and the BAR over the Sergeant Jasper redevelopment, the city felt it necessary to undertake a study of its eight-decade-old architectural review process. After settling the Jasper lawsuit on highly disadvantageous terms, the city engaged DPZ, an architecture and design firm best-known for building new urbanist communities like Seaside, Fla. Despite having no experience in preservation or with an historic district review board, DPZ was tasked to draw up a series of height recommendations and revisions to the Charleston BAR. (Ironically, the only height district NOT addressed in the current proposal is the controversial 3X zoning that allowed the Sergeant Jasper in the first place.)
After a series of charrettes and meetings, DPZ came forward last fall with a series of height recommendations. Since then, the process has been a roller coaster. Meetings have been held on short notice. City Council votes have been rushed through. Stakeholder discussions have been insufficient. Earlier this year, the Preservation Society expressed our grave concern over the lack of process and requested that the City slow down, allow for stakeholder input and consult with the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s legal department. We were encouraged when the city committed to taking “as long as necessary to get it right” and to working with the preservation community. Unfortunately, we have not yet “gotten it right.” While we appreciate that the city staff has incorporated many of our comments, our principal concern, over the dismantling of the BAR’s authority, was never addressed. Yet the proposals hurtle on towards the Planning Commission. They have changed twice in the last week alone, with inadequate documentation. This week, with the Planning Commission meeting only a few days away, we had still not received an updated height map. Such a volatile process is counter-productive, to put it mildly, and will hardly ensure an optimal outcome.
Our second concern is the damage that will be done to the BAR’s authority if the ordinance revisions go through. Changes that may seem to be mere semantics are likely to have far-reaching consequences. Here’s why. The reason Charleston’s historic district looks the way it does today is that the BAR — composed of design professionals, engineers, lawyers, that is, people who know what they are doing — has had the discretion and the authority to consider the context in which renovations or new construction would occur. They have evaluated projects on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the neighborhood character, the harmony of the proposed materials, the impact that the height, scale, and mass of the project would have on its surroundings.
What the BAR has never done is apply a mechanistic formula to an application. Charleston’s appeal — to the millions of tourists who come here every year as well as to the thousands of residents — is its nuanced human streetscape. Our neighborhoods are both regular and intricate, varied and harmonious, architecturally complex and yet accessible. We have the BAR to thank for this.
Replacing human discretion and personal agency with a mechanistic approach will inevitably cripple the sensitivity to context that has been a hallmark of the BAR’s work. It would be like replacing the home plate umpire with a robot programmed to call a certain strike zone. As a matter of fact, if the suggested height formulas are adopted and put in place, we might as well have robots serving on the BAR. Such formulas may be appropriate for the mostly large commercial or multi-family buildings that are being constructed, but they do not really have a place in Charleston’s small-scale neighborhoods.
In the strongest possible terms, we implore our city leaders to slow down the process. Charleston deserves better than a pre-determined blueprint. We must hang on to an abiding hope that we can shape this process for the better, to reach towards the best possible BAR and the most beautiful Charleston we can imagine. But we need more time.
Everyone in the city of Charleston should be concerned for our historic district, and for that matter, every district of the city. Because it won’t stop with the peninsula.
Betsy Kirkland Cahill is board chair of the Preservation Society of Charleston. Kristopher B. King is executive director.