Growing pains hit home

Eastern Calhoun Street, as seen from the roof of the Francis Marion Hotel. (Robert Behre/File)

Charleston has two images. One is a charming city attracting visitors, accolades and new residents. Another is a city where growth and tourism are growing at the expense of downtown neighborhoods.

Both are legitimate perspectives.

For example: Visitors enjoy wandering past Mazyck-Wraggborough's historic homes, and they flock to special events at nearby Marion Square.

But neighborhood residents point out that those visitors also take over limited street parking, and some stagger through noisily at night when the bars close.

Residents feel as if they must be watchdogs over a city that allows growth to trump neighborhood priorities. They point to plans for a four-story office building on Calhoun Street as the latest evidence.

The building is proposed for a small lot at the corner of Calhoun and Elizabeth Street, a gateway to the historic neighborhood. Residents say the building would be too large for the lot, would overwhelm the single house next to it, would block sunlight and would further tax already scarce parking. And they feel as if the city is bending over backward on behalf of the developer, who will make his third plea for a zoning variance this week.

The law lets developers seek variances that will allow them to increase the size of buildings or to reduce or eliminate parking. But those variances should be granted only on the basis of real hardship, when the pertinent ordinance would effectively prohibit or unreasonably restrict use of the property.

They are not there to help a developer maximize profits.

Parking problems are no surprise in a dense city. In the past 12 months, the city has approved eight requests to allow projects lacking a total of 20 parking spaces.

The 22,000-square-foot office building on Calhoun Street is another applicant. Thirty spaces are required.

Neighbors say the developer could decrease the size of the building and reduce the number, but he is pushing ahead. He first wanted to provide parking at the parking garage at the S.C. Aquarium, more than three blocks away - beyond the limits set out by zoning restrictions. Neighbors fear that people using the building would likely opt to find street parking closer by, and that parking is already scarce for neighborhood residents.

They are almost assuredly right.

So the developer signed a 10-year lease with the city for 25 spaces, up to 30 if required by the Board of Zoning Appeals. They would be in either the aquarium parking garage or the one serving the Gaillard Auditorium (which satisfies the zoning requirements), depending on what BZA says.

Meanwhile, the former L. Mendel Rivers Federal Building on Meeting Street - also in the Mazyck-Wraggborough neighborhood - is being converted to a hotel. And plans have been considered for a hotel at the corner of Calhoun and East Bay streets.

Neighborhood association president Vangie Rainsford is concerned about the impact of these projects. She and others in the association attend multiple city meetings, and she says it is getting more and more difficult to get those boards and committees to pay heed to her neighborhood's concerns.

Indeed, she attended a City of Charleston Real Estate Committee meeting to ask members not to lease parking spaces for the office building at 80 Calhoun St. She was allowed to address the group, but only after the decision had been made. And if the developer meets the other zoning requirements, he is almost assured the go-ahead to build.

Still, Mazyck-Wraggborough residents aren't backing off. They plan to attend the BZA meeting Tuesday and plead their case. Then they'll go to the Board of Architectural Review, which must approve the building's height, mass and appearance, and explain again that the building is too large for the site.

They say they love their neighborhood and are willing to spend their time and energy on its behalf.

Protecting neighborhoods isn't always straightforward. A large office building that appears incompatible, might house businesses that would help the local economy.

Residents understand that.

But they would like for the city to be on their side in the battle to protect neighborhoods when development threatens their quality of life.