Developers beware. The blueprint is complete for denying any large, high-profile development that comes before the City of Charleston’s Board of Architectural Review. It does not matter if the project meets all applicable zoning requirements. It does not matter if the architect follows the directives of the BAR and city staff to the letter. It does not even matter if the mayor speaks in favor of the project, lauding its excellent architecture. If those in opposition can exert enough public pressure on the members of the BAR, chances are the board will capitulate and the project will be denied.
There is no other way to explain the denial of the proposed Sgt. Jasper redevelopment at the BAR’s June 3, 2015 meeting other than to say it was a triumph of mob rule. After the Beach Company initially presented plans for a 20-story building that it had every right to build under the existing zoning requirements, the developer acceded to community pressure and BAR recommendations by reducing the height of their proposal to the height of the existing Sgt. Jasper building, 14 stories. Additionally, they reduced the structure to cover only 50 percent of the lot space they were otherwise entitled to occupy. The changes incorporated by the project architect were in direct response to comments from BAR members and city staff at the previous BAR meeting.
The resulting changes were so pronounced that Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., who opposed the prior proposal because of its height, spoke in favor of the new plans, lauding the architect’s inclusion of all the city’s recommendations. Despite this initial statement of support and a city staff recommendation in favor of the new design, the approval of the project turned on a single vote, and the proposal was denied three votes to two. While such a narrow margin can hardly be characterized as a wholesale rejection of the new design, BAR board member Jay White gleefully proclaimed that the board’s decision represented a mandate that the Beach Company scrap the design and head back to the drawing board. That is certainly one way to interpret the results.
Another way is to recognize that the BAR is a municipal entity not bound by objective standards in its decision-making. If a large enough group of citizens can organize themselves or join with preservation groups which also oppose a project, approval can be denied simply by following a well-worn litany of steps: 1. Show up in huge numbers for the public portion of the BAR meeting, 2. Speak in apocalyptic terms about how the project will ruin Charleston’s historic fabric (be sure to include a few witty zingers for The Post and Courier to pick up), and 3. Write as many letters to the editor as possible. If all else fails, sue.
It was not always this way here in Charleston, but the die was cast when the BAR fatefully decided to approve the now-abandoned modern design for the Clemson Architecture Center on Meeting Street over the protests of neighborhood groups, the Historic Charleston Foundation, and the Preservation Society of Charleston. Although that project also met every legal requirement mandated by the city and actually made it past both the city staff and the BAR, those spurned groups waged a relentless campaign against the BAR and the decision until Clemson withdrew the design. This campaign included letters to the editor critical of the BAR, a lawsuit in the circuit court questioning the BAR’s application, and the commissioning of a study to curtail the BAR’s jurisdiction and power. The BAR got the message. In its first potentially controversial decision of a large project following the Clemson debacle, the members of the Board of Architectural Review who voted against the Sgt. Jasper project repeatedly noted the apparent size of community opposition to the project as a significant factor leading to their vote against approval.
Good design should not be a popularity contest, and BAR members should not make their decisions based on the number of people who show up either in favor of or in opposition to a project. When the BAR approval process can be gamed to prevent a project that meets all legal requirements and city recommendations, then something is truly wrong with the process.