There is a beautiful, recently-built, rooftop bar in downtown Charleston that you won’t be seeing anytime soon. After strenuous neighborhood opposition, the City of Charleston Board of Zoning Appeals denied the Dewberry Hotel’s request for approval of its already completed rooftop bar. The stated reason? Neighbors a few blocks away said the bar would create too much noise. The real reason? The hotel developer added the rooftop bar after the original design plans were submitted, and the rooftop bar was not a part of the original application to the city. This mistake was enough of a reason for those against the application to get the application scuttled.
Believe me, I get it. In concept, a hotel developer should not be able to get a rooftop bar approved after-the-fact, when that bar is in relatively close proximity to a neighborhood. The process is set up a certain way for multiple reasons, chief among them to give proper notice to area residents of what will be built next to them. Issues of livability are very prominent in Charleston these days, as are the concerns about unchecked development and hotel proliferation. To allow The Dewberry Hotel to get a rooftop bar approved ‘through the back door’ would set a terrible precedent and could also potentially affect any nearby, neighborhood residents in an adverse manner. I get it.
But on a visceral, more subtle level, the city’s denial of The Dewberry’s application strikes me as troubling on several levels. The owners of The Dewberry spent millions of dollars rehabilitating a decaying, asbestos-laden, dinosaur of a federal building for the benefit of Charleston hospitality and tourism (and themselves). Of course, they also stand to make a tidy profit by the introduction of a five-star hotel in a prime downtown location, but there’s no denying that the city greatly benefitted from the conversion of The Dewberry from a vacant old federal building to a top-flight hospitality and lodging accommodation.
Hotels such as The Dewberry attract visitors with their amenities, and a rooftop bar in downtown Charleston is among the best amenities a hotel can offer, given limited space. There is no doubt that somewhere along the line, either the developer or the hotel planners made a key mistake, and did not request approval of the rooftop bar at the initial stages of planning. But to deny patrons and guests of the hotel access to a magnificent, beautiful vista on the pretext of noise and an untimely request for approval seems unduly punitive. While a handful of neighbors in the adjacent neighborhood arguably have a bit more quiet from the hours of 5-10 p.m., the hours when rooftop bar usage is busiest, the hotel owner has lost the use of a costly improvement to the hotel, and countless patrons have been denied use of a beautiful amenity.
I live directly across the street, on the ground level, from a popular venue in downtown Charleston used for wedding receptions and other social events. On any given night, it’s not unusual to hear the songs of Motown, or some other live amplified music streaming from across the street until about 10 p.m. (The city puts that time limit in ordinance form to protect residents like me). Fortunately, I don’t go to sleep before 10 p.m., but I have learned to accept that periodic noise as the price of living in a city center where people also want to congregate, socialize, and have fun. If I wanted absolute quiet where I lived, I would have chosen a house in Wadmalaw, Awendaw, or John’s Island. I can guarantee that no rooftop bar exceeds the noise levels that my neighbors and I tolerate on an almost daily basis.
It seems unfair that a neighborhood group of several dozen residents should be allowed to block an otherwise legal use of a commercial property, solely on the claim that the proposed use will infringe on their quietude and peaceful enjoyment of their property. Every rooftop bar that has been developed in the past 10 years has undoubtedly, somewhere along the line in its approval process, spurred prospective complaints from neighbors claiming that the bar’s noise will ruin their quality of life. The Grand Bohemian Hotel at the corner of Meeting and Wentworth streets and the Carolina Ale House on Calhoun Street are two prime examples. Despite the proximity of these rooftop bars to hotel rooms, apartments, and condominiums, would any unbiased observer honestly state that these rooftop bars collectively bring down the area’s quality of life?
Regardless of where one comes down on the recent Dewberry application, the current dynamic within the city is this: neighborhood residents, through their neighborhood associations, have been given a de facto veto on certain elements of the commercial development process. In theory, a group of five to 10 homeowners can create serious hurdles to a developer’s plans to make improvements to their property, claiming threats of noise, traffic, or reduced quality of life. It is very good that neighborhoods have been empowered in this fashion, and in many instances, a developer’s plans may be antithetical to a quiet living space for families and homeowners. The rooftop bar of the Dewberry does not seem to be one of those instances, however. A technicality and a planning oversight created an opening where an amazing use to a beautiful hotel renovation will be unrealized. And although a few neighbors may have won in this instance, it’s the rest of us that have certainly lost out on something wonderful.