Every day that Charleston City Council puts off adopting a revised ordinance to regulate the hotel building boom on the peninsula is another day that more than 12,500 hotel rooms are occupied by guests testing the city’s welcoming nature. Along with charming cobblestone streets, a sweeping harbor view and a lineup of top-rated restaurants, they experience streets with too much traffic and not enough parking.
It will be a sad day when they no longer experience a warm Charleston welcome, but instead find frustrated people unable to work and live comfortably because of the congestion.
The city’s administration and council have been chewing on this bone for years with input from residents, the tourism industry, preservationists and planners. Each time there is a promise of action, politics has gotten in the way. Elected officials seem to have been making decisions not because of their possible impact on the city they are sworn to serve but because they don’t want political adversaries to get credit.
Charleston is ready for some solutions. Political gamesmanship might be intriguing to those playing the game, but to residents — and voters — it is tedious and counterproductive. And detrimental to the city.
City Council will have another chance to provide solutions by way of a hotel ordinance coming up for a second vote Tuesday. In its early form, it won unanimous approval from the city’s Planning Commission, with recommendations for some tweaks, and won support of council. It’s time for those elected to lead our city to lead.
The city staff, with input from a task force, has fine-tuned some of the ordinance. It removed a proposed ban on rooftop bars and restaurants on new buildings. City staff is making revisions and soon will bring a separate ordinance on that subject to council.
The ordinance being brought Tuesday would limit new hotels displacing office, retail and residential usage. This is key if Charleston is going to hang on to its ability to be a livable city rather than a tourist destination where some people happen to live.
It will also require hotel developers to pay a fee to help the city fund affordable housing. Such a fee is more than reasonable. Hotels employ people who tend to earn well below the city’s median income and are thereby unable to afford living in convenient, pricey neighborhoods. They end up living in neighborhoods that are too far from work to allow them to walk there. Those who have cars find the cost of parking is an obstacle.
The task force has been asked to review another part of the ordinance that has drawn criticism from a hotel developer. That part would cap the number of full-service hotels in Charleston. Of course, this is tricky in that developers want free rein so they can attain maximum payoff. But free rein isn’t feasible if it means negative impacts to existing businesses, residents and infrastructure. Planners should be looking for ways to accommodate everyone, but in the long run they should step up and write an ordinance that is best for the city.
And the city’s staff, mayor, council and advisers should put aside politics, feuds and campaign strategizing and do the right thing. Charleston needs a stronger, more thoughtful and comprehensive hotel ordinance. Maintaining a healthy tourism economy is vitally important to Charleston. But bending to tourism’s more destructive side actually damages tourism in the long run — and damages the quality of life in Charleston before that.
City staff, with input from the task force, must get it right. And council must look to the health of the city and adopt a better ordinance to regulate and benefit from hotel development.