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Editorials represent the institutional view of the newspaper. They are written and edited by the editorial staff, which operates separately from the news department. Editorial writers are not involved in newsroom operations.

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Editorial: The design for 295 Calhoun is better but should get better still

295 Calhoun rendering (copy)

The proposed 8-story apartment development at 295 Calhoun St. in Charleston would include 307 units on the edge of Alberta Long Lake if it wins approval from the city to move forward. Rendering/DCS Design

Wednesday's public review of a controversial apartment building planned at 295 Calhoun St. certainly had a dramatic flair: Charleston's Board of Architectural Review deadlocked 2-2 while voting on about 10 separate motions, held a closed session for legal advice and finally agreed to table it. While the two-hour saga likely made no one happy, it's still a welcome sign because it underscores how city officials, preservation groups, the developer and his architect are going to great lengths to get the design of this major new building right.

After all, the proposed 8-story building will be highly visible not only to those entering downtown from the west but also to those living in Harleston Village, the city's largest 19th century neighborhood. We believe the larger goal of ensuring a high level of architectural quality is worth a vigorous public review that can seem agonizing at times, and the city should continue to stand firm and insist on quality.

We also believe this case underscores yet again the need for the city to scrutinize its policy of allowing extra height on buildings based on their architectural merit. This well-intended provision has proved problematic to apply, mainly because the ordinance is so vague about what "architectural merit" actually means.

The positive news is that Mayor John Tecklenburg held firm and didn't seek to bypass the BAR after the 295 Calhoun developer filed a lawsuit seeking mediation in response to the BAR voting twice last year to reject earlier proposed designs. Instead, developer SE Calhoun LLC took the right course, having his architect rework the design and bringing that back to the BAR for approval.

The design appears somewhat improved from the versions the board previously rejected: It now includes two 20-foot-long recessed areas along Calhoun to try to make it more pedestrian friendly, and the uppermost floor is farther back from the building's facade, reducing its visibility. The developer cited about 40 changes, and the city's staff recommended the board give it conceptual approval, the first of three necessary approvals. Many spoke up in favor of the design, too. However, many also spoke out against it, arguing the changes were relatively minor in the larger scheme of things.

In an unusual move, the Preservation Society of Charleston and the Historic Charleston Foundation submitted a joint statement in opposition. They remain concerned the new design doesn't reflect the city's unique architecture, which includes more vertical proportions, narrow frontages, gracious ground floors and articulated massing that relates to the human scale. 

We recognize that part of the challenge here, as it was with the controversial Jasper project several years ago, is that many people are uncomfortable with the existing zoning, which allows for a relatively tall building. The Board of Architectural Review cannot do anything about that zoning, but it can ensure that whatever is built conforms to the principles that Charleston laid out when it rewrote its BAR ordinance a few years ago.

And while the city is reviewing its rules for granting additional height for architectural merit, 295 Calhoun St. may not be affected by any such changes since it's already in the approval pipeline. Still, we urge city planners and City Council to act with urgency, ideally by January, to make those rules more specific. That should give architects and developers of similarly high-profile buildings a clearer path in the future.

Certainly, the approval process behind 295 Calhoun has been painful on all sides so far, but those who don't think the design of this building is worth the trouble should keep in mind that it almost assuredly will be standing prominently for generations to come. 

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