Many of the issues surrounding the possible redevelopment of the Sergeant Jasper site are as murky as the Ashley River that flows past it.
But one thing is clear: The proposal to replace the 13-story building with a 20-story building is not appropriate for historic Charleston.
Neighborhoods, preservationists and even the mayor have said 20 stories is too tall for the location.
So while there are still questions about just what kind of steps the city can take legally, the Charleston Planning Commission is right to push the issue. And at this point, the big issue is zoning.
The site near the corner of Broad Street and Lockwood Boulevard has a liberal zoning designation that would allow an outsized building to rise far above the rest of the neighborhood. That zoning designation, 3X, has been largely abandoned by the city — but unfortunately, not at this site.
Decreasing the height restriction to 55 feet makes great sense in the context of neighboring Harleston Village and Charlestowne neighborhoods.
But the question is whether the city can legally downzone the property to limit the height of a building that’s on the drawing board.
In a few other instances, the city has done just that when would-be developers had not yet invested a significant amount of money toward their plans.
Without a change in zoning, the only hurdle the Beach Company will face is the Board of Architectural Review, which will consider the building’s height, scale and mass. And apparently the board has never before reduced a building’s height substantially less than what city zoning allows.
In May, city staff will present its findings on downzoning and other options to a special meeting of the Planning Commission, which is sure to draw a large and passionate crowd.
City Council would have to approve any zoning change for the property. Would that council had revoked the zoning in 2006 when it eliminated 3X zoning for West Ashley, James Island, Johns Island, the Cainhoy peninsula and the Charleston peninsula above Mount Pleasant Street.
Council then recognized that the zoning designation doesn’t work for Charleston. It allows three feet in height for every foot the building is set back from the street.
In this instance, setting it back from the street hardly makes a 20-story residential building with 80 luxury residences (along with an eight-story office building, a shorter residential tower and a parking garage) appropriate for the site.
The Beach Company’s first choice was to build 454 residences distributed among three buildings between four and seven floors tall. It pulled the plan because it was so unpopular.
This plan is even less popular, and the best option would be for the company to pull it too.
Meanwhile, the city should pursue all of its options toward preventing the construction of a 20-story building. A Charleston high rise at this location isn’t ever going to look any better.