Charleston’s unique blend of historic and contemporary architecture hasn’t been achieved without many struggles. And while those struggles, often involving the general community, can be painful, they have proved worth the effort.
The ongoing debate over the Sergeant Jasper apartment building and its proposed replacement has been as heated as any in recent memory. The Beach Company, which owns the property and wants to redevelop it, was unable to persuade the city’s Board of Architectural Review that its plan is right for the site, amid low-density residential neighborhoods. Each of those neighborhoods features a wealth of the historic architectural blend that has made Charleston the distinctive city that has gained it international acclaim.
The Beach Company also failed to find needed common ground with the city, preservationists and neighbors through a court-supervised mediation.
The next step is going forward with a Beach Company lawsuit challenging the BAR’s rejection of the plan. And though it is a pity to reach this point, this is, at least, one step farther from a major mistake at one of the gateways to historic Charleston.
Indeed, the apartment building that the Beach Company wants to replace was itself a mistake. Its 14 stories are out of kilter with anything nearby, and its exterior design is ordinary at best.
So the dilemma isn’t whether to raze it, but what to build there. The three plans that have been produced have all been equally out of scale with the residential neighborhoods nearby.
They are all so dense as to worry neighbors that they would be overwhelmed by traffic and congestion — problems that are already of concern.
The controls that the city of Charleston has to protect its appearance, livability and function in the historic district have done their job in most cases. A very troubling aspect of the Sergeant Jasper standoff is that the Beach Company’s actions could undermine that process — particularly by minimizing the BAR, which has helped guide architectural decision-making in historic Charleston for more than 80 years.
It was encouraging that Mayor Joe Riley declared the city will stand strong to see that the BAR’s authority isn’t diminished. More than a few of its decisions have been controversial, but the city is a better place because of its work. Rather than be discouraged by this contentious issue, the BAR should emerge from it realizing that its role today is as important as ever.
There is no reason to doubt the Sergeant Jasper site can be developed in a way that is profitable for its owners and welcomed by its neighbors — and that the BAR, neighbors and preservationists will recognize such a plan when it is finally presented.
Meanwhile, the mediation process undertaken in this instance needs to be revised by the Legislature when it returns to session. The law that provides for the mediation limits public review and input — and stifles open discussion by those involved in the process.
Essential protections to the historic district have been accomplished only with the involvement of the public, and the forum provided by the BAR.
A closed mediation format won’t achieve the same vital, time-proven ends.