By design, a doughnut shop likes to make its product a bit uniform — you know, a dozen have to fit relatively well in a box. Modern zoning has placed similar lids on Charleston’s skyline, but the opportunities for a new downtown building to climb high have been few and far between. Recent design approval for a six-story Wentworth Street hotel has sparked fresh debate over the limits of the downtown skyline.

Developers had wanted seven floors, nearly the maximum allowed under city zoning, but the height was an issue for the city’s Board of Architectural Review. As part of a broader range of concessions to win approval, the developers lopped off a floor of the building, leaving only a small glass stairwell jutting up from the sixth floor.

The board gave conceptual approval for the hotel on a 4-2 vote, but the height was still a problem for some board members who fret that the city skyline is at stake.

Board Chairman Craig Bennet Jr. argued for a shorter building to no avail. He praised the hotel’s green, modern design, but said the height wasn’t doing the city’s architecture any favors.

“Overall, the whole height of the city is rising with this,” he says. “One of the things that dramatically defines this city is being lost by letting these buildings go up 80 feet.”

Moderation in the Skies

City architectural planner Eddie Bello says the city is allowing taller buildings in the King Street business district for a reason.

“We believe that the city does need to adapt and grow in certain areas,” he says.

Before 1978, buildings were obliged to climb higher in all areas of the city. Zoning allowed for buildings to be three times taller than their setback from the road. For example, a building that was set back from the road 50 feet could be 150 feet tall.

The city’s first preservation plan more than 30 years ago forced most maximum heights down, particularly in the southern portion of the peninsula. Buildings in the high-traffic commerce areas along Meeting and King streets, referred to as the spine of the peninsula, could be taller, typically up to 80 or 100 feet. Buildings directly on the road were capped at just a few floors to keep a relatively consistent view from the street.

The goal was to prevent marring the view to and from the city by putting the taller buildings in the middle. A view of the ocean wouldn’t be marred by tall buildings and the view looking into the city would largely leave tall buildings in the background.

That initial plan changed very little over the years, until a review of building heights in the medical district in 2004 led the city to do a broader update. To that point, buildings in the Upper King Street area could still run up to three times the setback. The city pulled those height limits down to conform with the rest of the shopping district and lowered maximum heights in the lower King and Broad Street area.

More than most any city, Charleston values its historic structures. Regardless of what’s allowed on the books, increased scrutiny is placed on projects in the vicinity of significant buildings as identified by the city. And architectural boards like Charleston’s, with the authority to lop off a floor or two in the name of historic character, is rare, Bello says.

“In some sense, it takes a balance,” he says. “You want to have the city be able to grow and be diverse and economically viable.”

The Not-So-Mighty Dollar

The economic argument doesn’t faze Bennett, the architectural board’s chair.

“It’s not our job to make sure that people always make money off of their buildings,” he says.

Robert Gurley of the Preservation Society of Charleston says the current dire market conditions shouldn’t be a reason, either.

“Market conditions are temporary. Hopefully the ambiance in the historic district is permanent,” he says.

Building heights have led to more dramatic bouts farther up King Street. The Francis Marion Hotel may be a 12-story institution downtown, but an eight-story hotel planned at the old public library site has been held up by a lawsuit brought by local preservationists, including the Preservation Society. Another big-ticket project, the Midtown multi-use development off Upper King Street, won city approval relatively swiftly, but still sparks some ire from Gurley.

“It’s just going to dominate Upper King Street,” he says of the development’s proposed size. “It’s a matter of degree. You can have tall buildings, but you still want the historic buildings to be the star.”

With the Wentworth hotel request, members of the architectural board welcomed the chance to debate building heights and the broader question about growth in the historic downtown district.

“This kind of renewed vitality creates a dialogue and makes people think about design, and that is the healthiest thing,” says member Chris Schmitt.

It’s not clear what the future holds for that dialogue, though. The city commissioned an update to the ’78 preservation plan last year that calls for new building limits based on the number of floors instead of the number of feet, with certain parameters to keep developers from going too crazy with floor heights (no 20 foot floors). If approved, the new flexibility would create a little variety in the skyline.

But, with the downtown area’s legion of historic structures, it’s hard to imagine many more opportunities for tall buildings. There’s a handful of sites similar to Wentworth, but the project at Midtown and the Marion Square hotel were two very unique exceptions — doughnut holes in a larger, shorter landscape.

View the pdf of height districts here

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