Charleston’s newest boutique hotel, which will occupy the upper floors of the former Bob Ellis shoe store on King Street, got the greenlight this week from the city Board of Zoning Appeals. It’s the fourth new hotel approved by the board in the past three months.
Indeed, hotels are increasingly taking over former commercial properties throughout the historic district. And while the new tenants have so far been willing to keep ground level retail spaces intact, there’s no rule that says they must do so.
The city Planning Commission should fix that.
Earlier this year, the Planning Commission considered rule changes that would give the BZA greater leverage in determining whether to grant a special exception for accommodations use — including protecting retail and office space.
The commission and City Council approved part of that stricter test last month, requiring that new hotels account for employee parking and other transportation-related impacts. That’s an important step that will help ensure hotels are better neighbors to nearby businesses and residents.
But the rest of the tougher rules should also be approved in order to make sure that hotels don’t displace commercial properties.
Already, the BZA must consider whether a new hotel would take over existing residential property. That’s a vital provision given the importance of maintaining a living, working city.
Businesses are part of that formula too, however. And they’re not currently protected.
As such, the hotel developer taking over the Bob Ellis building could choose to convert existing retail space into a lobby. So could a developer putting a hotel above the former Dixie Furniture store on upper King Street.
Fortunately, both developers have agreed that maintaining the commercial character of King Street is important, and are designing their plans to preserve retail space. But better rules are needed.
After all, every new hotel downtown takes up space that could be used for housing or businesses. High demand and limited supply are pushing prices for commercial and residential properties through the roof, threatening the peninsula’s economic diversity.
It would be an overreach for the city to prevent accommodations uses from taking over buildings just because they could prospectively be used for other purposes. But it’s certainly sensible to prevent hotels from crowding out existing residences and businesses.
A thriving Charleston that works for both residents and visitors needs a healthy balance between hotels, other businesses and homes. The BZA needs the tools to help protect that balance.