Hotel boom needs limits

Construction workers scale ladders inside the Midtown hotel project at the corner of King and Spring streets Wednesday April 23, 2015. (Grace Beahm/Staff)

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Charleston Board of Zoning Appeals, four new hotels on the peninsula were approved.

Four hotels. Two hundred rooms altogether.

At one time in the city’s history, this would have been indisputably good news.

Now it raises a pressing question: How many hotel rooms are too many for Charleston?

Plenty of residents are alarmed by the proliferation of hotel rooms and the congestion that comes with them.

Developers say plenty of people are here to fill rooms. The hospitality market takes care of itself. When there are enough, it will be apparent.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, while campaigning, called for the city to take a breath and analyze the question.

And Kristopher King, executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston, says that time is now.

He said it is unprecedented that BZA would be asked to consider four applications for new hotels in one meeting. And three of them are within a few blocks of each other.

That’s a lot of strain on the neighborhood.

The numbers speak volumes. At the end of 2015 on peninsula Charleston, 4,865 rooms were available or under construction, including the Dewberry (150 rooms), Homewood Suites (162 rooms) and the long-anticipated one on Marion Square (185 rooms).

Another 538 rooms were in the process of getting various necessary approvals.

And this week, 200 more.

It is altogether reasonable for residents to want things to slow down long enough for the city to determine how best to proceed.

The city refined its zoning rules regarding hotels in 2013. Below Line Street, hotels can have no more than 50 rooms unless they provide certain amenities including meeting space and restaurants that are used by non-guests as well as guests.

But Mr. King is on point when he says nobody could have foreseen the tremendous market demand for hotels in Charleston. The zoning issue needs to be revisited.

BZA members might have had personal reservations about okaying four hotels at once, but their task is to hew to the letter of the law, and all four applications met those requirements.

“We need to ask if the [city] is posing the right questions, and are the outcomes effectively balancing market demand with the concerns of the community,” Mr. King told us.

Winslow Hastie, chief preservation officer for the Historic Charleston Foundation, agrees that it is time for a conversation about hotel growth, and further says it must be focused and purposeful.

In that respect, Mayor Tecklenburg should waste no time putting together a committee of residents, planners, developers, business people and preservationists to come up with recommendations for Charleston City Council.

It is worth finding out how comparable cities handle the issue — successfully and unsuccessfully. But it is important to keep in mind that peninsular Charleston is unique because of its size and historic character.

A diverse committee established by former mayor Joe Riley and the Historic Charleston Foundation to address balancing business, tourism and quality of life for residents on the peninsula identified the burgeoning hotel industry as a concern.

The city has acted on some of the committee’s recommendations. It needs to put this one at the top of its list.