Last week, the Bennett Hospitality Group broke ground on an eight-story $101-million hotel to be constructed next to Marion Square. The event represents the culmination of a 10-year legal battle between Bennett and the groups opposing the hotel, which is set to be built on the site of the abandoned main library.
Over the course of that decade-long fight, preservation groups challenged a zoning variance the City of Charleston had granted Bennett to build a hotel on the site. The project’s lengthy journey shows how difficult it can be to construct a large building in historic Charleston in the face of legal challenges, even when the law and the city support the project.
The costly battle may also foreshadow the fight which looms ahead for the Beach Company if it continues to pursue its plans to build a 20-story building at the site of the current Sgt. Jasper apartments. While the Beach Company presently enjoys the same 3X zoning designation as Bennett’s Marion Square hotel — the 3X zoning allows structures to be three times as tall as the distance of the façade from the street — the city’s stated opposition to Beach’s 20-story proposal only complicates matters.
Ironically, the City of Charleston expanded the 3X zoning designation on King Street to allow Bennett to have the same zoning which the Beach Company now has at the Sgt. Jasper site. When Bennett originally acquired the library site, only 60 percent of the parcel had the current 3X zoning. When the City of Charleston changed the zoning designation to apply to the entire property, the Historic Charleston Foundation, a leading preservation group, sued, claiming that the city had engaged in illegal spot zoning. The legal challenge went all the way to the S.C. Supreme Court before an eventual ruling determined the city’s variance was perfectly acceptable.
But while the Beach Company is allowed to build a 20-story building on the Sgt. Jasper site, political support matters also. Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. has said Beach’s proposed structure is too tall, which is a good indicator the proposal does not have the city’s support. Because the Beach Company will have to obtain approval from the Charleston Board of Architectural Review in order to proceed with their plans, this lack of city support proves highly problematic.
To run that gauntlet, Beach must first get approval from the BAR on the proposed building’s height, scale, and mass. Unlike the zoning regulation, the BAR’s judgment of what may be too tall is purely subjective. If the board feels that the proposed building is too tall for a particular site in relation to its neighbors, that judgment alone may form the basis for the board’s decision to withhold approval. Add to that the fact that all current BAR members have been appointed by Mayor Riley. If Riley speaks against the application at a BAR meeting, which he tends to do only in the most important cases, it would be akin to President Barack Obama making a direct appeal to a U.S. Supreme Court full of justices appointed by him. A ruling against the proposal would not be guaranteed in such a case, but the Beach Company’s odds in such a scenario are not good.
The Beach Company’s best bet is to hope that the next mayor is more open to its proposal than the current one. But even that presupposes that the zoning for the Sgt. Jasper site will remain 3X, as it is now. The Post and Courier reports that the Planning Commission is considering down-zoning the property, a move that would make the 20-story plan even more unattainable. It’s hard enough to hit a moving target when the laws are changed in your favor, as the Bennett group discovered during its decade-long odyssey, but it’s that much harder when the target is moving farther away.
Given the current political climate and state of opposition, the Beach Company’s current proposal faces an uphill battle at best. Because neighborhood groups and preservationists seem unlikely to support a compromise the developer would agree to, support from the city is vital, whether it comes now or after November. As the Bennett Hospitality Group has shown, big bold projects can be accomplished with the right support.