Proposal is too large and dense for Sergeant Jasper site

The old Sergeant Jasper building. (Grace Beahm/Staff)

The Board of Trustees and staff of the Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF) want to be very clear regarding our position on the proposed redevelopment of the downtown Sergeant Jasper site by The Beach Company.

While HCF is supportive of the redevelopment of this site, our general position is that the project as proposed is just too large and dense for this part of the city. It would negatively impact the livability of this end of the historic district and has the potential for massive adverse impacts on traffic flow and overall congestion at this key gateway of the city.

We recommend denial of this PUD application as proposed at both the Planning Commission and City Council. HCF is not opposed in principle to the Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning approach for a project of this magnitude and complexity; however, we are opposed to this PUD application as submitted.

It is very important to understand that the PUD process itself is not the problem; the problem lies in what is actually contained within the PUD. The flexibility that is allowed with a PUD can actually be a huge asset — the zoning controls can and should be completely tailored for this specific site.

Councilman Mike Seekings did an excellent job explaining the PUD process in great detail to a packed audience during a meeting he hosted at the Charleston Museum on Feb. 12.

Unfortunately, the plan presented by The Beach Company does not respond to the unique circumstances of this important gateway property into the lower historic district.

Yes, this site currently has a 14-story apartment tower on it today. It is a product of a bygone era in Charleston when the city was thrilled to see any economic development occur. However, no one could reasonably argue that this building is appropriate for its location today. So we currently have what’s called a “legally non-conforming” situation: a building that is too tall and too dense for this part of the city, but is grandfathered in since it was constructed before more sensible comprehensive planning and zoning restrictions were established.

Past mistakes should not serve as a justification for continuing along that path.

We can rectify this mistake by advocating the construction of lower-scaled, high-quality buildings across the three parcels being considered for redevelopment. This new project should provide excellent public open space, neighborhood-scaled commercial uses and housing that is accessible to a broad spectrum of Charleston residents.

It is critical to emphasize that this PUD approval is predicated on the proposed site being changed in the Century V Comprehensive Plan to an “Urban Core” designation, and that it be removed from the Old City Height District.

For clarification, the city’s comprehensive plan is intended to carry out the following purpose: “A Comprehensive Plan is a long-range plan intended to direct the development of a community over ten or more years. It is a statement of community values and goals concerning the existing and future environment. It serves as a guide for decision makers and a tool for managing community change to achieve a desired quality of life.”

To amend a plan that is the result of significant public input and high-level analysis in order to allow a project of this scale and density would be a terrible precedent.

The Century V Plan represents the most up-to-date thinking about how our city should grow responsibly. Its vision should trump the much-outdated underlying zoning that is present on the Sergeant Jasper site.

The comprehensive plan for the city is only updated every 10 years, and the last update was just completed in 2011.

It is common knowledge (enshrined in multiple adopted city plans) that the most dense development in the city should be directed toward the center spine of upper King and Meeting streets, the Hospital District and areas of the upper Peninsula. Therefore, it is our position that this part of the city, on the western edge within the historic district, should not be re-designated for extremely high density.

It is our hope that the community can work together to cut through all the noise surrounding this project and advocate, in a civil manner, for an appropriately scaled project that is truly relfective of the vblaues of our city.

Winslow Hastie is the chief preservation officer of the Historic Charleston Foundation.