Scrutinize Gaillard park plan

Public discourse can be messy. Rarely — never? — is there unanimous agreement.

Discourse that comes toward the end of a planning process rather than in the beginning is messier — and less likely to produce helpful input.

In the case of the redo of the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, for example, neighbors and historic preservationists are frustrated. When they have expressed concern, they have been told it is too late. The message might as well be: The train has left the station.

And, indeed, City Council approved the plan to renovate the auditorium, improve exhibition space and consolidate city offices on site in 2010.

On Wednesday, more than a dozen people asked the Charleston Board of Architectural Review to vote against or postpone voting on the city’s landscaping plan for the large open area between the auditorium and Calhoun Street. They fear the space, as designed, will be used for concerts and other events that could draw thousands of people, their cars and their noise to the edge of the residential Ansonborough and Mazyck-Wraggborough neighborhoods.

But BAR member Robert DeMarco said the board’s role is to consider design, not usage. The BAR voted to give conceptual approval for the plan.

Those who objected to the potential impact of the landscaping proposal were not happy, and with justification. Clearly, there hasn’t been adequate consultation with the public on the latest component of the Gaillard proposal.

Evan Thompson, executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston, cites the park plan as evidence of the “ever-expanding” nature of the project.

In a recent column on our Commentary page, Mr. Thompson made a wide-ranging recommendation he contends is necessary to avoid “suffocating adjacent neighborhoods.”

That plan included shifting the auditorium to a site adjacent the harbor.

Specific to the outdoor performing area, he recommended that it instead be improved as a passive park and garden that would continue to be used for recreation by nearby Buist Academy.

The Ansonborough Neighborhood Association recently voted in favor of Mr. Thompson’s plan.

In an op-ed response, Mayor Joe Riley dismissed the proposal, citing the additional cost, the millions already spent on planning and development, and the numerous public hearings already held on the project.

Nevertheless, the positive public response to the Thompson proposal should get the city’s attention — at least for what it says about possible inadequacies in the city’s public outreach process. City Council, in particular, should be alert to improving that process, as needed. And maybe council will see something it wants to follow up on among Mr. Thompson’s numerous recommendations.

In any event, the park plan for the Gaillard is one component of this public project that can easily be given additional public scrutiny — before the train leaves the station.