Beating hemotological cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma demands a grueling series of chemotherapy and often bone marrow or stem cell transplants. The patient’s suppressed immune system must then be checked daily with follow-up bloodwork, forcing families to stay near hospitals for stretches lasting up to 100 days. For Larry Parker of Summerton, S.C., his fight against cancer took place in 2002 at Hollings Cancer Center at MUSC and meant months spent in Charleston hotels close to the facility.
“I was lucky,” Parker says, pointing out that he has the means to foot the steep hotel bills he accumulated during two separate rounds of treatment.
Creating a comfortable and affordable home away from home for patients like him has become an obsession for Parker, whose daughter battled leukemia as a child and whose father lost a battle with the disease. He started looking for houses around Hollings to convert into a temporary recovery residence last year.
After months of searching, Parker found his “miracle,” as he calls it, at 60 Barre Street. The five-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath house is within walking distance from Hollings, and with backing from the Parker Miracle House Foundation Inc., would provide temporary residence for five patients and their respective caregivers during their post-transplant periods.
But in order to proceed with his plans, Parker needed a use variance to turn what is now zoned single-family residential into a personal care facility.
Echoing the recommendation of Lee Batchelder, Assistant Director of the Zoning Administration, the Board of Zoning Appeals ruled unanimously that the house did not pass the variance test, and recommended Parker petition the City Council for rezoning.
None of the residents who spoke out against the project questioned Parker’s concern or the need for such a facility itself. But over and over again, their response was that the Miracle House was a fabulous idea — just at the wrong location.
According to Batchelder, such an organization would “harm the residential character which has already been impacted negatively by the hospital.”
Residents’ concerns ranged from logistics such as parking to the house’s effect on the underlying feel of the neighborhood itself, which has been moving toward uniformly residential over the last years. According to Harleston Village Neighborhood Association President Cleave Ham, concern for setting a precedent — denying nonresidential projects — is a primary concern for him and the neighbors most affected by the project.
“Such a structure should not be nestled in a neighborhood,” Bonnie Dumas of 39 Bennett St. said at the meeting. The benefit of Miracle House, Dumas pointed out, was analogous to that of the Hope Lodge on Calhoun Street.
Although Parker has not ruled out a cooperative project with Hope Lodge, he pointed out the specific needs of lymphoma and leukemia patients such as limited contact with visitors and daily hospital visits. He says the Miracle House would offer no medical services — no doctors, nurses, or lab — and that parking spaces had been promised by MUSC as well as a shuttle to move patients back and forth from treatment.
Parker mailed letters explaining his project to more than 900 residents in the area and received support from 193 of them.
Melinda Lucka, counsel for the foundation, pointed out that the properties directly behind and adjacent to 60 Barre voiced their support. Although Parker shared his story and explained the hardship of fellow patients, such stories could not play into the BZA’s decision. This part of the city government does not consider the perhaps more personal face of zoning issues; it can make decisions based only on the cold facts of a given property. As board chairman Leonard Krawcheck told Parker, “You’re in the right church with the wrong pew.”
The personal nature of the variance, however, didn’t escape the residents who spoke against Parker — many of whom scooted out of the meeting before Channel 5 could interview them on camera.
Despite Parker’s claims that Miracle House would be a place for people — half of whom have cancer — to live, Harleston residents such as Karen Del Porto are adamant that this is not a residential use and to grant him the variance would make the entire neighborhood vulnerable to future exceptions.
“The residential zoning has been here for 200 years,” she says. “A personal care facility is a business use. We’ve had some really promising things going on, and this is a step backward.” Del Porto points to a parking lot and several doctors’ offices that are now switching to residences; she wants to continue that trend and emphasizes the extra parking and traffic created by workers and volunteers would compromise that.
Parker and his team will work until the end of the week to exhaust all of the city’s proposed ideas for relocation or cooperation with Hope Lodge before appealing the BZA decision. He says he’s driven around the block over and over though, and that proximity is everything in this project.
“Show me a site that is affordable and appropriate,” he says.
But who knows, maybe the city will, and he’ll get a miracle after all.