With depressed expectations for the condo market, developers of 18 units at the corner of King and Wentworth are looking at another type of business, one that seems a little more resilient — namely, Charleston’s alluring high-end boutique hotels.

The 18 condos above Lucky Brand Jeans and Gap were completed late last year, and they were expected to sell for up to $1.2 million. But, with the writing on the wall, the owners sought an alternative to the open market.

The city’s Zoning Board of Appeals approved the boutique hotel request last week.

A third party is expected to handle management of the hotel units, says Bryan Perrucci with Southeastern Management Group, which oversees operations of the building. The first-floor area that once housed the 52.5 Record Shop was supposed to serve as a sales office for the units, but will now likely be used for the hotel lobby.

The units are expected to be competitive with the rates of nearby hotels, Perrucci says.

“You’re basically getting a condo for a hotel rate,” he says.

Local preservation groups have been unhappy about the change.

“We’re very weary of changing the zoning code for temporary economic conditions,” says April Wood with the Historic Charleston Foundation.

Project architect Neil Stevenson says converting to hotel rooms will reduce the amount of traffic to and from the site. The city approved the zoning exception, but with requirements that guest and employee parking be worked out in advance in nearby garages to avoid cluttering neighborhood streets.

While the zoning board approved this request, a similar proposal to convert nine units at the corner of King and Society streets was rejected last week. Those units had once largely served as off-campus housing for College of Charleston students. They’d been renovated in 2007 for re-sale as luxary condos. A write-up in The Post and Courier eight months ago touted the units’ features, including “granite countertops and high-end appliances in the kitchen, antique-style custom cabinets, Brazilian hardwood floors, crown molding, and washing-dryer hookups.”

Stevenson, who was also the architect on that project, told zoning board members that the units sat on the market for over a year. The owners furnished the condos to make them more appealing to buyers. Instead, groups seeking short-term weekly rentals expressed interest.

But the city refused the Society Street request because of concerns that it would limit the number of residential units available downtown. Prior to renovations at the Wentworth property, the space had been used for retail and office space, but never for rental units. But the Society Street property had been apartments before and converting them to hotel rooms would be a net loss in housing units on the peninsula.

“That’s my sticking point with the application,” says Lee Batchalder, the city’s zoning director. “My feeling is this will adversely impact housing stock.”

Zoning board member Margaret Smith says the city should consider modifying this requirement, because these types of requests will likely come up again.

“I think (a hotel) is a much better use than having a bunch of college students,” Smith says.

But zoning planner Yvonne Fortenberry says it’s important that the city protect the number of residential units. Property owners who anticipate more money from hotel rentals could displace long-time residents.

“And a lot of times it would be your more affordable housing,” she says.

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