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Editorial: Don't rush decision on smokestacks

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Eastside smokestacks (copy)

Smokestacks at St. Julian Devine Community Center in Charleston's East Side neighborhood. Robert Behre/Staff

Several positive developments have occurred since the city of Charleston suddenly announced in late August that it soon would dismantle the two smokestacks next to the St. Julian Devine Community Center due to an imminent public safety risk.

The neighborhood and the city's preservation community have united behind their desire to save the towering landmarks, which are increasingly rare remnants of the peninsula's industrial past. The city itself has taken time to investigate — and price out — other options, such as reducing them to half their current height. And, perhaps most importantly, Charleston has been spared any serious storm that might topple one or both onto nearby homes. The city also has come up with a plan to evacuate those residents should such a threat emerge in the waning weeks of hurricane season.

So the smokestacks still stand, and Charleston has begun to see the kind of broad, thoughtful discussion that should occur whenever one of its historic structures is at risk — especially if that structure is owned by the city.

But all this progress largely would be for naught if City Council rushes a decision Tuesday on the smokestacks' fate.

To their credit, City Council members held a workshop on the smokestacks last week, and while it's increasingly clear that most want to see them saved, their full preservation is projected to cost about $2.5 million more than their demolition. And with the city's COVID-contracted finances, some fear that would mean less money for affordable housing or needed drainage work. Perhaps, but not necessarily.

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Hitting the pause button would let several more positive things happen, including an effort to raise private money to help save them. The city also should welcome other efforts to explore alternative solutions that might cost less than $3 million.

The Historic Charleston Foundation correctly notes this issue goes beyond the smokestacks' fate because the city would set a bad precedent by demolishing them without first getting approval from the city’s Board of Architectural Review, especially sinice their compromised state was first reported a few years ago.

"As the birthplace of preservation in the country, the city of Charleston should be a preservation leader and should be held to the same standards that it requires of taxpayers," the foundation says. City officials should see the logic in that reasonable point of view

As LaTonya Gamble, Eastside Neighborhood president, has made clear, the desire to preserve the smokestacks has united her increasingly diverse neighbors, many of whom have felt they're not often heard.

Charleston's debate over these structures has been a clumsy one so far, one affected by COVID-19 and the often-problematic gray area that emerges when a compromised structure poses an imminent public risk. But the debate is finally taking place, and there's no reason to shut it down now.

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