A recent letter to the editor lamented the design of new construction on the Charleston peninsula. The writer called a planned hotel at 235 East Bay Street “plain vanilla” and predicted it would be “torn down in the not-so-distant future.”
The letter writer acknowledged that the city’s Board of Architectural Review’s approval required the developer to work with city staff on additional adjustments to the design. And with work, it doesn’t have to look like the “parking garage with windows added” that he envisioned after seeing the initial design.
But his message is one that cannot be overstated. Charleston, one of the loveliest built cities in the United States, has had a long run of new construction that falls far short of what this city should expect. It is so obvious that the city in 2016 revised ordinances regarding the Board of Architectural Review to address the problems. One body had been charged with evaluating everything from a paint job on a small house to a new, sprawling five-story apartment complex. Now two BARs do the work — one for large construction and one for smaller projects. The expectation is that members can gain more expertise and hence make better decisions.
The Charleston peninsula has very limited room for infill. There is no place for more mistakes. Further, the historic buildings that entice people to live and work in Charleston — and to visit — are mostly small. While city regulations were instituted to respect the city’s scale and protect the city’s steepled skyline, pressure to build taller and larger hospital, hotel and apartment buildings has mounted. Their size alone changes streetscapes dramatically, often negatively. If they lack design elements that mitigate their hulking presence, the result is even worse.
The conversation about large building design reached a crescendo as plans unfolded for WestEdge near the hospital district. And while what is appearing there might, as a result of the conversation, be better than the original design, are its buildings up to the task?
Kristopher King, president of the Preservation Society of Charleston, has suggested that those designing large buildings for Charleston should look to history. The handful of tall buildings erected before the BAR was created in 1931 tend to be more appealing and have much to commend to today’s projects. Mr. King also notes that the big-building boom is relatively new to Charleston, so local architects and design teams have had less experience in that realm.
Someone building a house for his family or a small office building for her law firm is likely to consider every detail and insist that the product is right for the site and the city. Often hotels and apartment buildings are built by developers with little or no relationship to Charleston. They believe it is a smart place to build and a likely place to make money. Their architects might have designed tall buildings for Atlanta or Charlotte, but Charleston is different.
Charleston also is in demand. That suggests that city officials are in a position to demand more from developers, including more appealing buildings. Architectural design standards should be reasonable but exacting. And developers should be held to those standards.
Plain vanilla is just fine for ice cream. But not for Charleston’s built environment.