Hit ‘pause’ on new hotels

Construction workers scale ladders inside a hotel construction project on King Street in April 2015. (Grace Beahm/File)

To many people who live and work on peninsula Charleston, the last several years have felt like a hospitality sprint. In one recent week the Board of Zoning Appeals approved plans for four new hotels.

There are now 4,826 hotel rooms that are operational or under construction. Eleven more hotels — 763 rooms — have the required zoning approvals.

And the number of visitors to book those rooms just keeps growing.

So while a proposed hotel moratorium proved to be unacceptable to Charleston City Council on Tuesday, every member agreed to have city staff research the issue for the next 90 days and report their findings. It was a wise move, supported by preservationists and neighborhood groups.

The city did a major, year-long study of hotels three years ago and significantly limited the places where hotels could be built and, in some cases, their size.

But since then, Charleston’s profile has increased considerably. Hotels have been completed and the city is getting real experience dealing with the growth.

Meanwhile, the city’s Community Development Committee on Thursday is expected to discuss short-term rentals like Airbnb and VRBO.

The city’s analysis should include how the possible growth of short-term rentals could impact the city’s traffic and parking — and also the hotel industry. It should also study hotel occupancy rates and room costs in general.

But the hotel proliferation issue is not just that many people who work and live on the peninsula feel the city’s tourism industry is bringing too many people and cars to too small a space.

It is also that peninsula Charleston needs places for residents to live, play and work — and not just to wait tables and clean hotel rooms.

So city staff should also present data about what the city is doing to attract other businesses, and how that is working out.

Mayor John Tecklenburg had planned to push for a 10-month moratorium on the processing of zoning and development applications for accommodations on the peninsula south of Mount Pleasant Street. But the suggestion met with criticism that it could discourage investments in Charleston. The item was removed from the agenda and council instead voted for the study.

Mr. Tecklenburg was delivering on a campaign promise, one that presumably influenced voters to elect him. Council should keep in mind that sentiment.

It is tempting for members of council who live west of the Ashley to dismiss concerns. Councilman Dean Riegel called the issue “just a reaction to the downtown crowd — I call them the South of Broad crowd.”

That’s an unfortunate characterization.

The city’s economic health is determined by all quarters. And all citizens should be interested in the peninsula remaining attractive to residents, businesses and tourists, just as they should care about the city rejuvenating West Ashley and bringing new businesses there.

With construction costs low and “Charleston Fever” high, it’s unlikely hotel development will dry up soon. Mayor Tecklenburg hopes that the city doesn’t receive many applications while the study is being done, and correctly insists that the city will expect any such applications to stand on their own without zoning variances.

That might not be a bad principle for hotel projects south of Mount Pleasant Street even after the study is complete.