No ‘second kick’ needed on Jasper to preserve Holy City skyline

Houses along Lockwood Drive and the Sergeant Jasper apartment building -- viewed from the James Island Expressway. (Wade Spees/Staff)

Prayers of the Holy City’s faithful were answered last week when the Charleston Planning Commission agreed with them that the Beach Company’s latest plan to build an 18-story luxury residential tower with office space and a five-story parking garage on Broad Street’s west end was out of scale. The fate of the hotly contested Jasper development now goes back to the Board of Architecture Review, which earlier deferred voting. Meanwhile, the vacated, 14-story Sgt. Jasper apartment behemoth — built by Beach Company founder J.C. Long and opened in 1950 — looms on a 4.5-acre site adjacent to Moultrie Playground until the matter is ultimately resolved by City Council.

“It’s a miracle,” someone whispered during a moment of stunned silence after the Planning Commission’s 4-3 vote limiting a new building to 55 feet tall was confirmed. The audience then erupted in applause and cheers.

Beach Company CEO John Charles Long Darby seemed surprised by the vote but kept his composure as he has done throughout the approval process. He later said he would lower the proposed 18-story tower by four stories to 150 feet, which is roughly the same height as the gutted apartment building. Downtown Charleston’s neighborhood associations have rejected Darby’s proposals for massive construction on both the Sgt. Jasper site as well as adjacent St. Mary’s Field, a two-acre tract filled with Hurricane Hugo construction and cleanup debris following the 1989 storm.

Few people would argue for permitting any buildings in the Holy City taller than the 15 church steeples currently accenting Charleston’s world-class skyline. But to men like the late J.C. Long, it did not seem to matter. He once was quoted as saying he was not a member of and church, and, “I’m not interested in joining the Knights of Columbus or the Ku Klux Klan.”

The man who developed most of the Isle of Palms, initially with low-slung, brick ranch houses for veterans returning from World War II, was not afraid of controversy. He first proposed building the 14-story Sgt. Jasper Apartments on Wentworth Street on a site that later became the venerable McAlister Funeral Home, and probably would have done so had he not gotten a U.S. Housing and Urban Development loan to fill a mudflat adjacent to Moultrie Playground in an area designated in the 1700s as the Colonial Commons.

Long, a former state senator who served as a city alderman in the late-1940s, used his political and personal connections to mastermind the purchase of the public marsh and mudflats for $5,000, then secured a $2 million HUD loan for the apartments to accommodate low- to middle-income white residents. He was not alone with that point of view at that time in Charleston’s fascinating racial history.

The overwhelming majority of the audience who spoke at the special Planning Commission meeting Monday in the Burke High auditorium panned the Beach Company’s redevelopment proposals.

“You must respect the city’s iconic skyline and reject the latest plan,” Winslow Hastie of the Charleston Historic Foundation admonished the commissioners prior to the vote. He said the vacated, 14-story apartment building is a failed relic of Charleston’s past, and increasing its size by another four stories would be an even more tragic mistake. Speaker after speaker followed Hastie to the microphone. Only three said they supported the taller design. One was Mary Graham of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. “An average of 43 people a day move to our region, and we need to embrace more density,” she said. “This site is an excellent in-fill opportunity.”

She said the developer invested a lot of time and money in the Jasper project, and businesses need certainty: “You can’t keep moving the bar and expect growth to take place.”

South Battery resident Randy Pelzer said the Beach Company has no vested rights in the building design until City Council gives final approval: “The Planning Commission’s role is to prevent damaging intrusion into the Charleston skyline. Mistakes have been made in the past. It’s time to correct them.”

Local resident Jock Stender agreed: “The Sergeant Jasper building is like a scar on the city’s face; it’s very difficult to make it go away. The Beach Company does not own Charleston’s skyline. It should take its business to Dubai instead.”

Mayoral candidate John Tecklenburg said Thursday he is not in favor of replacing the Sgt. Jasper with another 14-story building:

“City Council should begin to implement the advice of city architectural consultant Andres Duany, who recommended that we move to floor limits instead of feet for building heights. This would encourage architectural artistry and diversity. Given the size and location of the Sergeant Jasper lot, I favor a hard cap of five floors facing the street, with up to three additional floors on the interior, similar to the design of Charleston Place. City leaders made a mistake when they approved the original Sergeant Jasper in 1948, and there’s no education in the second kick of that mule. We need to take clear, definitive action now to ensure we don’t make the same mistake again.”

John M. Burbage is a longtime journalist, editor and book publisher who lives in Charleston and owns a working farm in Hampton County. He may be reached at jburbage@postandcourier.com.