The Board of Architectural Review is not the place to scare the crowd. When it comes to seeking city approval for a controversial building, this is when you put on your best face. Lots of pretty windows, pleasant colors, ample access. When architects made their request for the new hotel, planned to replace the old library off Marion Square, there was one prop recognizably absent: an ugly, bland L-shaped model that had played a prominent role earlier this year in securing a height variance for the building from the zoning board of appeals.
Where the architectural board might be the place to show off, the game plan in front of the zoning board usually includes the grimmest of pictures — the worst case scenario. It’s a sense that what they could do by right would be much worse than what they’re asking for. Projects could be taller or have more units, but they’re asking for less here to get more there. For example, when the downtown Holiday Inn was planning an expansion, the fear was that if the city refused the request, there could be a second hotel popping up where the expansion would be. And what’s worse: one large hotel or two packed-in smaller ones?
While preservationists don’t take offense to developers using the worst case as a tool, they’re looking for an updated historic preservation plan to reign in the zoning in some neighborhoods that tends to open the door for trouble.
Developers presented the L-shaped block in their request for the Marion Square hotel to show the impact of the city’s zoning standards, which would allow the building to be much taller on King Street, but severely limiting the back half, creating an L shape when viewed from Marion Square. The block was used to argue the hardships in developing the site, but the threat was evident: Do you want this symmetrical, albeit taller than usual, hotel, or do you want that funny-looking building that currently conforms to city standards?
These things don’t arise as threats per se, just clear explanations of what’s possible without the requested variance or exception. Sometimes the developer brings them up and sometimes they come up in board debate. And sometimes the worst-case scenario can be in the eye of the beholder, as even the balanced, nine-floor plan for the Marion Square hotel has its detractors.
“Sure, it could be lopsided, but just because it’s symmetrical doesn’t take away the fact that it’s too big,” says Winslow Hastie, preservation director for the Historic Charleston Foundation.
In most instances, the worst-case scenario is a bogeyman, with the city’s Board of Architectural Review (BAR) poised to correct any truly marring project. As scary as the L-shaped building was, there’s little to suggest the developers would ever propose such a building, or that the BAR would spend more than two minutes considering it before refusal.
“There are all of these criteria to whittle down what people can do,” Hastie says.
At the frontline is Edward Bello, the city’s preservation planner, who gets an early view at all development proposals before they hit the BAR’s desk.
“A lot of times I have to be the guy who says, ‘This is totally too big,'” he says.
Just because the ordinance says a building can be a certain maximum height, doesn’t mean it will end up there if the neighboring lots are comparatively diminutive.
That said, there’s good reason to be scared. While some developers spend months or years whittling away at the worst-case scenario, others take the city’s existing height and density limits and run with them, creating uncomfortably tall or tightly fit projects that can only be whittled so much. A smattering of downtown projects head right to the limit and squeeze in floors, like the building at 21 George St. developed by Columbia-based Estate Properties, which has taken on criticism from preservationists because of its size and mass.
“They went pretty much to their top height,” says Katherine Saunders, associate preservation director for the Historic Charleston Foundation. “It got mitigated a little in BAR, but they went for that max height and max lot coverage and it was allowable through zoning.”
While developers shouldn’t be faulted for trying to get the most out of their property, Hastie notes that, if the city’s current zoning is left standing, these type of projects will go from being the unusual exception to the standard norm.
“If the max is at 50 feet, you’ll have a skyline of 50-foot buildings,” he says.
But there’s a light at the end of the tall, dense tunnel. The city, in cooperation with the Historic Charleston Foundation, is developing an update to the 1974 Historic Preservation Plan. While the document will touch on other concerns regarding preservation, including previously neglected communities off the peninsula, it’s also expected to include a look at city standards and make some recommended improvements that make the process better for everyone.
Clear guidelines would keep each development on the same approval track while everyone knows what to expect from each level of review, eliminating confusion from all sides. Some neighborhoods could also see modified height and density standards that more clearly factor in the surrounding character and size of the neighborhood.
“If you look at the pattern of a neighborhood and it’s a maximum of three units (on a lot), they might be zoned for seven or eight,” Hastie says. “So it’s that disconnect with neighborhoods between how they’re zoned and how they’ve been used over time.”
So, for now, all sides will have to do what they can in hopes that the results of the preservation plan point to ways to make the worst-case scenario a little less worse.
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