When the developers break ground on yet another big and likely ugly hotel on Meeting Street, you won’t see a lineup of smiling politicians with hard hats and shiny shovels poised for that familiar photo op. Not given all the gnashing of teeth about yet another big and likely ugly hotel downtown.
But they should all be there — the mayor, the former mayor, city council members, past and present — because they all played a role in putting that hotel there rather than something like, say, affordable housing for teachers or even restaurant workers. That corner at Meeting and Woolfe is as good as any to understand just how the peninsula became so infested with hotels.
Mayor Joe Riley. Call it The Royal Joe because no one is more responsible for a 252-room hotel reluctantly approved last week going there. In 2005, Riley gave the one-acre parcel to the for-profit Charleston School of Law, started by Alex Sanders and some of the mayor’s other pals the year before. The city bought the land for $1.2 million and immediately “sold” it to the law school for a cut-rate price of $875,000. In fact, the law school put down all of $10,000 and offered an IOU for the rest, which has yet to be repaid.
This was supposed to allow the law school to build a new home. It never happened. Instead, Sanders & Co. wrote themselves checks for millions and headed for the exits. In short order the law school was on life support, only to finally be revived by star Georgetown lawyer Ed Bell.
- Mayor John Tecklenburg. The law school’s deadline to build on the parcel or return it to the city was July 2017. But rather than reclaiming the land, the Tecklenburg administration gave the law school an extension in exchange for 25 percent of the sale price. At the expected $12.5 million price tag, the city will clear about $2 million in addition to getting repaid for the loan. Stuck with a bad contract, the city was left to make the best deal it could.
Bell has said he will use the handsome $9 million profit to build a new law school on the peninsula. That is a good thing, assuming your priority is minting a lot of new lawyers. But this much is certain: That’s $12.5 million that won’t be available to plug the massive hole in the financing of the Crosstown flooding project just as an example. Or for affordable housing, maybe right there on the formerly city-owned parcel at Meeting and Woolfe.
(Aside: Back before he was mayor, Tecklenburg, then a real estate broker, represented the law school in the deal with the city, obviously doing a very good job for his client. It’s a small town, folks.)
- City council and the planning commission. Council members have come and gone over the past 14 years, and none of them has done anything to put the brakes on hotel development. Council turned down Tecklenburg’s proposal for a hotel moratorium, and the planning commission rejected the mayor’s effort to remove sites from the downtown hotel district, this very corner lot included.
Councilmen such as Bill Moody, Keith Waring, Dudley Gregorie and Mike Seekings all found fault with Tecklenburg’s efforts to rein in hotels, but none had any answers, either. Our piano-playing mayor was left to look more like a side man than the leader of the band.
The point is decisions have consequences, sometimes not obvious for years. The city of Charleston gets a lot of attention because it is a brand name, and I don’t have to drive all the way to North Charleston to watch the meetings. But county council members, with far more money to use and abuse, can do more damage before lunch and yet they skate.
Councilman Teddie Pryor, the lead apologist for the $33 million-and-counting fiasco otherwise known as the Charleston Naval Hospital, was re-elected without opposition. North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, the true architect of that mess, will face but token opposition in November. His son, Elliott, is incredibly chairman of county council yet again.
Voters have lives to live, kids to raise, jobs to do. And they have short memories. In this town, they will forgive almost anything except someone who dares oppose The Highway of Their Dreams. Until we demand more, we’ll continue to get less. Guaranteed.
Steve Bailey writes for the Commentary page. He can be reached at email@example.com.