It was difficult, at last week’s Board of Zoning Appeals meeting, not to view the two groups gathered in the main meeting room at 75 Calhoun St. as a contest between Good Guys and Bad Guys.
Charleston Stage Company was there seeking approval for a plan to purchase New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church in Mazyck-Wraggborough from its congregation and create a 400-seat satellite home for the theatre company while its current home, the Dock Street Theatre, undergoes a restoration beginning next summer. The supporters of their bid for a zoning variance came from across the spectrum of the public and private realms. The plan had the blessing of New Tabernacle’s departing congregation, preservation watchdogs, the City of Charleston, every arts advocacy group in the city, myriad urban planners, architects galore, several neighborhood residents, and probably the spirit of the late Jane Jacobs, grandmother of community-minded urban design.
This group argued for the variance with passion and eloquence. They invoked the nature of great cities everywhere, where residential, leisure, and commercial uses intermingle, making for the vibrant bouillabaisse that is the essence of community.
Also present were quite a few incensed residents of Wraggborough. They argued that if the variance were granted, their property values would drop, parking would become an even greater trial, and their neighborhood would become a vehicular expressway. They also suggested that desanctifying the church for any purpose was blasphemy, that children would be run down by wild bus drivers, and that despite all evidence to the contrary, the theatre company would probably turn the facility into a nightclub.
After two hours of listening to the litany of complaints from the aggrieved homeowners, it became clear that they didn’t much care about great communities or their relationship to the proven principles of classic urban design. They didn’t believe the claims of longtime French Quarter residents, who live next to the Dock Street and Footlight theatres and promised noise and traffic had never been a problem. They ignored the Wraggborough residents who welcomed a cultural and educational use for the facility. They invented damning statistics and apocalyptic scenarios that seemed to have no basis in confirmed figures and hard reality. They preferred to believe that a theatre would be a greater hazard to their community than watching the church be turned into condominiums — which it’s already zoned for.
Watching and listening to the tortured, often petty rationalizations the residents offered in response to the thoughtful arguments the theatre’s supporters presented, it was easy to see Good Guys and Bad Guys. But that was a false choice. The Wraggborough residents were merely doing what landowners throughout history have done. One imagines the put-upon residents of the Isle de le Cité in 12th-century Paris shrieking just as loudly when officials proposed erecting the Cathedral of Notre Dame in their midst: “Parking will be a nightmare!” “Who knows how long until they turn it into a dance club!?” “Our children will be run down by carriages! You know how bad French drivers are!”
No, the residents’ reactions were instinctive and predictable. They couldn’t be expected to know any better.
The members of the appeals board, however, should certainly have known better. When they voted down the variance last week, they voted against the very concepts that have created beautiful, livable, safe communities from time immemorial. In the board’s ill-considered decision, there were no Good Guys or Bad Guys — just losers all the way around. The residents of Wraggborough got their wish. But they, and all of Charleston, lost in theend.
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