When many of Charleston’s historic homes were built, sea levels in Charleston Harbor were a foot or more lower than they are today. In another few decades, those sea levels are expected to be a foot or more higher.
So those homes are going to have to move it or lose it, so to speak.
But in a city known for its historic architecture, its picturesque streets and its preservation of centuries of craftsmanship and detail, the decision to significantly alter a home can’t be taken lightly. Indeed, that’s a big part of the reason why Charleston has the Board of Architectural Review — to prevent trendy or fashionable modifications from damaging the charm and value of a timeless city.
Of course, sea level rise is an existential threat to Charleston. And that’s saying a lot in a city that has survived war, earthquakes, fires and hurricanes.
If the city cannot adapt to a changing planet, there will be no city left to preserve.
“Close to every BAR agenda this year has had a request to raise a building,” said Kristopher King, executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston. “This isn’t a hypothetical situation.”
Fortunately, the BAR released last month a list of proposed guidelines to help owners of historic homes lift their houses higher off the ground without significantly altering neighborhood character or harming architectural heritage.
“We worked with the BAR staff, BAR members, architects and the preservation community on these guidelines over a couple of day-long workshops,” said Winslow Hastie, president and CEO of the Historic Charleston Foundation. “I think the document summarizes our discussion fairly well.”
The list mainly applies to buildings of significant historical merit. Other structures can be elevated by as much as 3 feet with city staff approval.
Even the most exceptional buildings will be allowed to be elevated up to Federal Emergency Management Agency standards, pending BAR approval. And the detailed list of guidelines should help prevent headaches for property owners going through the approval process.
“It’s so difficult to write a one-size-fits-all prescription, so I think it was wise to allow the BAR to take it on a case-by-case basis,” said Mr. King.
The proposed rules clarify that buildings cannot be moved or altered simply to add parking or additional structures, for example.
Historic materials still need to be used at the pedestrian level. Stairs should remain perpendicular to the sidewalk when possible. Planter walls are encouraged both to add visual attractiveness and help soak up stormwater.
Elevations of more than 6 feet will count as an additional story in districts where height maximums are regulated by the number of stories, so property owners can’t use flooding as an excuse to build inappropriately tall structures.
The list of requirements goes on. And the proposed guidelines, with perhaps some future tweaking as the BAR learns from individual cases, ought to help protect Charleston’s historic buildings from both architectural degradation and problem flooding.
But that doesn’t relieve local officials of their responsibility to address larger flooding problems.
“It’s frustrating that fixing the flooding issue falls onto homeowners,” said Mr. King, who noted that elevating a home can cost tens of thousands of dollars. “We’d prefer to see a more proactive approach to stopping flooding in the first place.”
Certainly, that should be a top priority. About $2 billion in needed flood prevention and mitigation improvements have been identified in Charleston alone.
Coming up with that money in a reasonable time frame is a tremendous challenge. The city could spend its entire budget on flooding for the next decade and still not meet every need.
It’s going to take a multi-faceted, aggressive approach to solve the problem, not a nickel-and-dime half-effort.
“We wish that the city had not fallen so far behind on essential drainage and infrastructure projects and that we did not find ourselves in this situation,” said Chris Cody, manager of advocacy with the Historic Charleston Foundation. “Having to make a groundbreaking concession like this underscores the importance of planning for the long-term future when dealing with flooding.”
Major changes to Charleston’s historic neighborhoods should not be taken lightly. Nor should the long-term threat posed by sea level rise. Fortunately, the city appears to have struck a good balance.