Controversy is not new to 150 Wentworth St. And the property, which is at the northwest corner of Smith and Wentworth streets, could well be in for some more as the city of Charleston decides whether to allow a hotel to be built there.
The 42-unit structure, which would back up to single-family residences, would be 44 feet tall and include a restaurant, spa and bar.
The site’s rich history started in the late 1830s or early 1840s when Christopher G. Memminger, later secretary of the treasury for the Confederacy, built a house there.
¦ Controversy 1: After the Civil War, it was taken over by the Bureau of Refugees and Freedmen and Abandoned Lands as an asylum for black children. Mr. Memminger protested and eventually got his house back.
¦ Controversy 2: In 1936, it was purchased by John McAlister Inc. for a funeral home. Neighbors objected, and eventually a court issued an injunction to halt that use on the property.
¦ Controversy 3: In 1949, the house was almost razed to make room for a 14-story apartment building.
¦ Controversy 4: In the mid-1950s, the house was razed, and McAlister’s Funeral Home built a one-story brick building on the site where it operated until recently.
¦ Controversy 5: The city’s Board of Zoning Appeals will vote Tuesday on whether to allow the hotel, spa, restaurant and bar on the site. The variance is sought by developer Mark Regalbuto.
City staff is expected to back the proposal. The Historic Charleston Foundation supports it, as do some neighbors. But far from all. The project merits serious consideration by the board — and residents should seriously consider taking the opportunity to speak on the issue Tuesday.
The project would mean a major change for the mostly residential historic neighborhood. A hotel brings cars, vendors and noise. And visually, a new hotel would be incongruous in a neighborhood renowned for its 19th century homes. Preservationists have lamented for decades the loss of the Memminger house and even now neighbors find the abandoned property an eyesore.
The city’s governing bodies, and its citizens, should be extra vigilant to prevent another mistake on the property.
The Board of Zoning Appeals will be asked Tuesday to approve a request to rezone the property from single-family residential to allow the hotel. That’s a drastic change, and law requires the developer to prove hardship.
Hardship? The zoning application says that the size of the property (almost an acre) dictates that it not be treated like other nearby properties that are smaller and used for residences.
Indeed, the developer is presenting a difficult choice to neighbors: a 42-unit hotel or 17 high-density housing units that might well be used by College of Charleston students.
However, there is another viable option, even if it is not on the developer’s top-two list. The property could be divided for five or six residences of a size compatible with the neighborhood.
The BZA should be firm and reject the plan if the applicant does not clearly show why a hotel should be allowed in an area that the city does not designate for hotels. Yes, the Wentworth Inn is across the street, but it is altogether different. It is half the size, and it provided a way to make a large, historic property usable.
The Harleston Village Neighborhood Association hasn’t been persuaded to back the new hotel — or to oppose it.
Opponents worry about parking (the hotel plan would accommodate only 35 spaces), the hotel’s mass and the noise and activity that it would bring.
Some supporters are tired of looking at the empty building. Some fear they would be unable to stop the alternative 17 high-density units.
Harleston Village neighbors of the college feel beleaguered already. They say students make noise and use up precious parking spaces. As renters, they don’t often maintain houses and yards. So a virtual college dorm would not be welcome.
The future of 150 Wentworth St., however, is of interest beyond Harleston Village. It is a prominent lot on one of the peninsula’s main arteries.
Plans for a four-story hotel in the residential area should be decided on its own merits — not as the better alternative to a Hobson’s choice. The proposal should receive meticulous scrutiny.