Public outcry wins as Jasper plan loses

An aerial view of Colonial Lake and Sergeant Jasper Apartments in downtown Charleston. (Leroy Burnell/Staff)

The Jasper project’s Chicago-based architect winced Wednesday when members of the audience took the microphone and explained that construction of the eight-story People’s Building at 18 Broad St. in the early 1900s sparked Charleston’s venerable preservation movement, which led to the formation of the nation’s first Board of Architectural Review.

Joe Antunovitch, of Antunovitch and Associates of Chicago, had concluded a high-tech screen production pitching his revised “Building in the Park” concept in hopes that the review board would approve his latest proposal at the west end of Broad Street to replace the vacated 14-story Sgt. Jasper apartment building.

His elaborate multi-media show included animated artist renderings of a handsome new Jasper complex nestled in lush trees as seen from the corner of Ashley Avenue and Broad Street. The presentation included billowing, white clouds floating across a beautiful blue sky, cars moving to and fro, and people walking happily together with friends, children and pets in and around the complex. He described his plan in glowing terms that included “a marvelous mixed-use project with garden-like open spaces and walkways, generous hidden parking and setbacks, and excellence in all aspects including the highest quality of building materials.”

All of which went over like a lead wrecking ball to the overwhelmingly hostile but polite audience that packed the Charleston Museum auditorium for the latest round in the city’s Jasper redevelopment approval process.

Antunovitch has repeatedly said his vision for the new Jasper gathering place is inspired by the architectural design of the People’s Building, built 104 years ago at the urging of Charleston Mayor R. Goodwyn Rhett, who also was president of the People’s National Bank. His building was vilified by many Charlestonians as the Holy City’s first skyscraper, and lambasted before, during and after its opening in 1911.

On Wednesday, the members of the review board listened carefully to the lead architect and to those who spoke during the public-comment period, then voted 3-2 to deny the latest Jasper plan. Meanwhile, the city Planning Commission recommended that buildings in a new Jasper complex be no taller than 55 feet, then asked the planning staff to develop a rezoning plan establishing the lower height limit on the site. The full City Council is expected to vote on the revised zoning restrictions in July.

Of approximately 40 people who addressed the board Wednesday, few voiced support for the latest Beach Company proposal to redevelop the site. One was Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., who spoke first during the public comment segment. He thanked the board members for their volunteer service, and then praised the Beach Company for its latest plan — four stories shorter than its previous proposal and approximately the same height as the vacated Jasper apartment building. He said the architecture, attention to detail and quality of building materials would be among the finest in the city. “Now I must leave you,” he said. “I have to get back to City Hall.”

Former BAR chairman Dwayne Green, whose law office is on Rutledge Avenue, agreed, saying the new complex would be an excellent project that offered an appropriate western bookend to one of the city’s most prominent streets. Another supporter was Robbie Freeman, who said he works for the Beach Company and is married to one of its owners. He said he has enjoyed living at 3 Barre St., next door to the Sgt. Jasper Apartments, through the years, and is convinced that the new complex would be a great addition to the neighborhood. He was later reminded by another neighborhood resident that the vacated building contained hazardous asbestos and lead paint that require careful removal. Indeed, all of the downtown neighborhood associations have vigorously criticized all three of the redevelopment proposals for the six-plus acres of land between Colonial Lake and the Ashley River. A partial list of the public’s criticisms:

The architect’s “Building in the Park” is actually a “Monstrosity on the Marsh.”

At a proposed height of 159 feet, compared to the planning commission’s recommended 55 feet, one cannot help but wonder how tall will this child be? If the child is as big as the owner wants it to be, then the child should be moved uptown where all the children are tall.

The Beach Company has no vested rights regarding height. Property rights are not a free pass in this extremely controversial case.

The BAR must reject the plan because the proposed height, scale and mass are completely out of scale and inappropriate. The landowner should not be allowed to build anything incompatible with its surroundings.

Approval of this project would set into motion a game of dominoes in the historic district, and the developer does not have a right to do that.

Use of all the marble in Italy in its construction would not make the proposal acceptable.

We don’t need something that looks like the Waldorf Astoria in our neighborhood.

What the Beach Company wants to build on the Jasper site has more square footage that the Francis Marion Hotel and the old Cigar Factory combined.

The Jasper plan is an elephant on a postage stamp.

The city should not allow the owners to triple their original Jasper mistake.

The original Sgt. Jasper is a blight that we’ve been blocking out of our minds for more than 60 years. Let’s not replace it with one that is even more disturbing.

If approved, the massive Jasper structures and those that surely would follow will suck the life out of the west end of the peninsula.

The Board of Architectural Review must keep in mind that the soul of the city of Charleston is at stake.

And here’s one more observation:

The aged and vacated Sgt. Jasper building should be condemned immediately, cleared of hazardous materials and removed from the site.

It is an eyesore and an accident waiting to happen. And it would be great to see what the site looks like without anything on it.

John M. Burbage is a journalist, editor and book publisher who lives in downtown Charleston and on a farm Hampton County.