Raise the bar with the BAR

An architect's rendering shows the proposed building at 292 Meeting Street, as viewed from the corner of Meeting and George streets. (Provided)

Rules need to be fair and clear if they are to be helpful. And they need to be followed consistently.

Unfortunately, rules now governing the Charleston Board of Architectural Review are none of the above. As a result, one of the most controversial buildings the BAR has ever considered for historic Charleston has become even more controversial.

So the Preservation Society of Charleston, the Historic Charleston Foundation and the Charlestowne and Historic Ansonborough neighborhood associations have appealed the BAR's preliminary approval of Clemson's proposed architecture center at the corner of George and Meeting streets.

Charleston's Court of Common Pleas has been petitioned to decide whether the BAR erred when staff rewrote the rule that sets out what should happen during a project's first hearing before the BAR, and rewrote it after the hearing for the Clemson project.

Here's how the process works: An applicant has to win the approval of the BAR in three stages.

Traditionally, at the first stage (as outlined in the old rule), the BAR gives conceptual approval for the building's height, scale and mass. The second (preliminary) approval involves the building's architecture. And the final approval is to ensure that the applicant made the changes and improvements that the BAR had called for.

But two weeks after the BAR gave conceptual approval to Clemson's proposed Spaulding Paolozzi Center in October of 2012, staff changed the language to say that conceptual approval also indicated approval for the building's architectural direction.

So when the BAR considered the project for the second time on June 25, members were advised that they had already approved the architecture and needed to move forward and consider the adaptations Clemson's architect had made.

Clearly, members of the public who came to the BAR meeting to give their opinions of the building thought they still had the opportunity to address the building's architecture. And clearly, rules are meant not only to govern the BAR's actions but to allow public input into the process.

The suit does not speak to the Clemson building's architecture, even though all four groups behind the suit oppose the modern design that features a curving wall made of perforated concrete on the George Street side and a metal screen along the Meeting Street side covering lots of glass.

It is a pity that the problem was brought to light in the context of such a controversial project. The public needs to feel confident that the process was handled correctly, and surely Clemson wants the same.

The city could and should use this issue as a reason to revisit BAR policies and clarify the criteria used to judge projects. And those cover more than just the controversial Clemson center.