Focus on function in Jasper debate

Aerial view of Colonial Lake and Sergeant Jasper building in downtown Charleston. (Leroy Burnell/Staff)

In a year where much is changing, and the very future of Charleston lies in the balance, nothing defines the challenges that stand before us as we (literally) grow into a 21st century city more than a 60-year-old building at the corner of Broad and Lockwood.

The Sergeant Jasper rises at the gateway to one of the most storied and recognizable historic residential districts in the world. The new Jasper project, as it unfolds, will reshape the future of development and growth on the Charleston peninsula and will define our city for decades to come.

No wonder it has generated so much interest. And confusion. And controversy. And angst. And debate. What is missing, as I see it, is a focus on function over form in both the building itself and the public process of approval.

To be sure, the Sergeant Jasper is iconic. It is also tall, outdated and in desperate need of what one might delicately call “rebranding.” Sounds simple enough.

Well, as you know, not really. And it’s not so much the building that complicates this process, but rather the dirt (or fill) upon which it sits. Perhaps nowhere in the city is there a four-acre parcel laden with so many (and at times hopelessly conflicting) zoning requirements.

The property is zoned limited business, although it is currently the site of 220 residential units. It has an overlay vertical designation of 3X, allowing for, in theory, a maximum height upward of 300 feet, yet it sits within the Old City height district with its attendant 42-foot height limitation. It is more densely populated than any of its surrounding properties, yet it is designated “urban” by the City’s Century V Plan, which limits development to 12 units per acre. And there is plenty more. The Downtown Plan. The Preservation Plan. Traffic studies. Common sense.

The property, and what rises from it, is an enigma, a conundrum, a riddle. And if we do not get properly focused on its use, it will be ordinary low level commercial sprawl in an extraordinary place. But alas, we march forward through a process that is uncertain, draconian and broken. And, has gotten off to a bad start.

The first idea, short lived but much debated, was to essentially ignore the existing zoning by re-designating the property as a Planned Unit Development, or PUD, which, without belaboring the gruesome details, failed in an epic manner. It seems that nobody in the community, developer or resident alike, had the stomach for a flattened out complex that spilled towards Broad Street like a mud floe.

So, off to the city’s Board of Architectural Review (BAR) with a 210-foot-tall, 150,000-square-foot commercial building that mixes in 80 residential units and a 535-space parking garage. Surely this cannot be. Remember: Gateway. Historic. Residential.

The mission of the BAR, as stated, is “to preserve and enhance the quality of life of the citizens of the City of Charleston.” The policy statement of the BAR is, “New construction should be sympathetic to the historic features that characterize its setting and context. To respect the significance of the historic context, the new work should respect the historic materials, features, size, scale, proportions, and massing of its setting.”

Section 54-240 of the City Code requires the BAR, when passing on an application for new construction in the Old and Historic District or Old City District, to “consider, among other things, the general design, the character and appropriateness of design, scale of structures ... and shall prevent developments which are not in harmony with the prevailing character of Charleston, or which are obviously incongruous with its character.”

So many things for the BAR to think about. The mission of the citizens is to be heard.

And so recently, in a special meeting of the BAR, heard they were. In a veritable Who’s Who of downtown Charleston, defined here as virtually everyone who lives within three miles of the project, person after person spoke to say the project was too tall, too dense and not in harmony with the prevailing character of Charleston.

Yup. Three mayoral candidates even spoke to decry the horror of the Sergeant Jasper project although none had any particular suggestion on how to get the community focused on the use aspect of the project.

The architect, an industry giant from Chicago (where the tallest building is 1,451 feet), stated that although the proposed building will be among the tallest in the city, it will be so perfectly positioned on the aforementioned zoning burdened land that one would have to cut down trees to see it from Broad Street.

What? I could not help but wonder as I watched his presentation whether he was referring to the beloved Hackberry Tree that threatened to derail Colonial Lake improvements, but that was saved at the last moment in a corroboration of cost savings and political survival.

So in the wake of such input (and overwhelming sentiment) the BAR’s perfunctory motion to deny was certain to follow: But no, this is what the BAR concocted.

“Motion for deferral of the application based on height scale and mass, specifically addressing the tower element, and the applicant should take into consideration the board’s general comments about the height of the tower and also appended to that motion for deferral staff comments which suggest further study of certain portions of the building. And in addition to that the board has made certain suggestions but mainly the suggestion is that the applicant review and should re-study the height of the tower.”

Wow! Or perhaps more articulately stated, huh?

Mercifully, two BAR members voted against this encoded and indecipherable motion. Amazingly, three did not. The BAR will reconsider the project on Wednesday.

No matter what your position on the project, tall or short, dense or sparse, pro or con, we as a community are entitled to a decision. Instead, what we got was more delay and uncertainty and little direction as to where this project might be heading, other than Circuit Court. Of course, there is more. Enter the Planning Commission and the debate over the continued viability of 3X (read tall building) zoning on the peninsula. After taking input from a somewhat smaller crowd than the BAR, the Planning Commission voted (4-3) to pronounce 3X to be archaic and incompatible with future development on the peninsula. And they are right. And they would have been right 10 years ago.

The timing of this action, if you are a person who prefers to see (rather than continue to read about) some form of world class development at the corner of Lockwood and Broad, and would like to learn how Charleston will define its 21st Century urban psyche, may not be ideal.

The project developer, much like Roald Dahl’s Charlie Bucket, is the owner of one of the few 3X golden tickets. How it got the zoning (and what it can actually do with it) is the subject of much debate. The answers are, at best, unclear. But the question for now is whether it can be taken away. Legally. There is no shortage of opinions on that question. And while we on City Council may get a chance to weigh in, it is highly unlikely we will be the final voice. (See my earlier reference to Circuit Court. Or perhaps beyond.)

Here is where we are. The developer wants to build a tower that is tall and surrounding buildings that are dense. The BAR says it’s too tall. The Planning Commission says it is way too tall (by at least 150 feet, if my math is correct). The community says it is too dense. The underlying zoning says there can only be a limited number of residential units.

Unfortunately, the math does not work. Existing zoning divided by the BAR input, subtracting the Planning Commission recommendation multiplied by public sentiment renders an unbalanced equation. To my friends, colleagues, neighbors and constituents, we can and we must do better. But it will take a collaborative rather than a combative process.

Many ask what I think should be built on the land that will house the gateway project to our historic city. And that is a fair question to which I reply here, I don’t know for sure. But I do know it should be principally residential. It should be no taller than what is there today and preferably a little shorter. It should be of high quality in design and construction. It should, without question, respect the residential neighborhood in which it sits. It should have well defined public space. Most importantly, it should be a project that owner, resident, visitor and citizen alike point to with pride rather than contempt, or even worse, indifference.

Unfortunately, that may (as of now) be an impossible goal to achieve. The process is broken and from a broken process comes a flawed project.

With a zoning that is inconsistent, organic and does not allow for the very use that must predominate the site, residential, the future as defined by the Jasper will not be what any one of us had hoped.

Mike Seekings represents District 8 on Charleston City Council.